Giving fundamentalism a secular boost

By Giles Fraser
9 Mar 2007

Media atheists of the narrower kind are fast becoming the new best friends of fundamentalist Christians. For every time they write about religion they are doing very effective PR for a fundamentalist worldview. Many of the propositions that fundamentalists are keen to sell the public are oft-repeated corner-stones of the media atheist's philosophy of religion.

Both partners in this unholy alliance agree that fundamentalist religion is 'the real thing' and that more reflective and socially progressive versions of faith are pale imitations, counterfeits even.

This endorsement is of enormous help to fundamentalists. What they are really threatened by is not aggressive atheism - indeed that helps secure a sense of persecution that is essential to group solidarity - but the sort of robustly self-critical faith that knows the Bible and the church's traditions, and can challenge bad religion on its own terms.

Fundamentalists hate what they see as the enemy within. And by refusing to acknowledge any variegation in Christian thought, media atheists play right into their hands.

Fundamentalism was invented only in the 20th century. None the less, in their struggle for secular values, commentators such as Polly Toynbee are effectively handing fundamentalists the title of official opposition. In the context of the fight to extend anti-discrimination legislation to homosexuals, that's a dangerous gift. For it grants the fundamentalist's worldview unwarranted extra lobbying power with government.

Many Christians don't believe homosexuality is a sin. Far from it. We think it's a gift of God - a means by which many show love and commitment and compassion. This is not an eccentric view within the church. It's also the view of the Archbishop of Canterbury, though, admittedly, he is insufficiently bold in expressing it.

Indeed, a great many Christians are deeply committed to the sexual orientation equalities legislation. They would have no truck with those who want to ban homosexuals from Christian boarding houses or classrooms. But bigots who dress up in the clothing of faith are being encouraged by media atheists in the view that orthodox biblical Christianity is intrinsically anti-gay. That's rubbish. And the only people who benefit from this line of argument are the religious gay-bashers.

Ignoring the fact that Christianity helped invent secularism, Polly Toynbee (writing in The Guardian) recently described the row over sexual orientation regulations as "a mighty test of strength between the religious and the secular".

Christians of the hardline right will have been nodding their heads in agreement. For the more fundamentalists can set up the disagreements concerning religion in terms of a Manichean struggle between the forces of God and "atheistic secularists", the more troops they can summon to the defence of intolerant versions of Christianity.

The media generally made a great deal of Christians protesting outside parliament against the passage of anti-discrimination legislation through the Lords in January 2007. And it was easy to be left with the misleading impression that all Christians oppose it. Not a bit of it.

As the editorial in Church Times, effectively the Church of England's trade paper, rightly complained at the time, the "broad support for the Equality Act from the Church of England and the Board of Deputies of British Jews has been drowned out by a small group of conservative Christians".

The same article goes on to point out that "mainstream Churches do not share the views of the protesters, and the majority of Christians will have no truck with discrimination on grounds of this kind". And thank God for that.

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