Simon Barrow

Resisting the polarising mindset

By Simon Barrow
March 21, 2007

It's one of the favoured tactics of more militant elements caught up in internecine political struggles to seek to polarise debate as much as possible for sectional advantage. Witness Northern Ireland and the Middle East. The middle ground or the radically alternative perspective is viewed as an unnecessary – even dangerous – confusion by those who see the world in pretty black-and-white terms, who despise compromising what they suppose to be their own purity, who fear the inconvenient other they cannot eradicate, or who have a clear view as to how they might 'win'.

So it is in the current phoney rhetorical war between 'the religious' and 'secularists' in Britain at the moment (actually one can be subtle shades of either or both). Some muscular Christian groups are going out of their way to talk up their status as a persecuted minority - indulging in inflated rhetoric to rally the troops and portray all who have a different perspective as "the enemy". Some Muslims, too, are emphasizing victimhood and us-versus-the-rest.

In a slightly bizarre variation on the same broad theme, the president of the National Secular Society (which appears to be a coalition including some quite constructive voices and some rather angry or resentful ones) has recently dismissed as dangerous and deluded those he labels 'religious liberals' – which means everyone who isn’t, in his terms, an outright nutter. He portrays them as mere adjuncts to extremism, bigotry and even terror. Yes, that’s right. Being ‘religious’ in any form at all is toy-town totalism and the conservatory of an earthly hell.

The argument, cloned from US polemicist Sam Harris, is based on a tautology: religion (yes, all of it, from Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama through to Pat Robertson and Abu Hamza) is defined as somehow tainted with criminality. It then follows that anyone who is 'religious' - no matter how reformed they may claim to be - remains an unwitting accomplice to those who commit overt crimes... thus proving that, er, religion is criminal.

Since the premise of the argument is built into the definition of the problem, painted in suitably undifferentiated and lurid terms, the procedure appears logical to all who buy into its premise. On that basis it can be exposited via minutely selective details. Its rather large evidential flaws are only apparent to those who stand outside the self-legitimating circle of judgment in some way - thankfully the great majority of religious and non-religious people, it must be said. They recognize, among other things, that a category (‘religion’) which includes both non-theistic philosophical Buddhism and the apocalyptic certainties of Jerry Falwell, might require a response that is just a little bit more subtle than being ‘for’ or ‘against’ it.

Though I think it is unhelpful to use the word 'fundamentalist' in relation to hard-line anti-religion (its content is so different) the procedures it uses for constructing its case have more than a few similarities. James Barr's helpful books on Christian fundamentalism (referenced in Ekklesia's paper on the subject) show how this mindset reinforces its own strong culture and belief system by tautological means, defended through a fierce mutation of rationalism - which only looks rational if you accept its very narrow starting point. Almost any attempt to engage reasonable counter arguments can then be dismissed as mere manifestations of what is being attacked. Catch 22.

By contrast, something like Mark Vernon's thoughtful and wise agnosticism is a useful antidote to those who seek dogmatic religious faith or dogmatic secular certainty - and he has experienced both. LSE Professor John Gray's book Heresies (he is certainly no believer) illustrates that the dilemmas faced by the religious have their parallels - it would be misleading to call them equivalents - in non-religious philosophies, too. Original innocence is a myth, in terms of the traditions we inherit. But nor are we locked in unredeemable vice.

Precisely because the issue is how to move beyond disabling resentment, the important thing, it seems to me, is not to respond in kind to ideologically over-determined rhetoric; whatever label it wears. Extremism is usually strengthened, not mitigated, by counterforce. What is needed is subversion of an altogether more humanising type.

"Courtesy, justice and love" is how Methodist scholar and interfaith practitioner Kenneth Cracknell describes the task of cross-cultural conversation. That is true of other divides, too – those that have not descended to brute force and naked power, anyway. (How you respond in those circumstances is another, not unrelated, matter). Cracknell’s point is not that reason isn’t a central component of dialogue; just that without the clear manifestation of these other virtues we will not reach it. Similarly, we are wise to take account of Catharine Madsen's chastening (but hopeful) insights:

To grow up politically is to understand that there are other points of view, and that you cannot erase them; that there are no shortcuts to respect, and that one must earn one's dignity; that our obligation to our fellow humans is to make our own point of view not unassailable but intelligible.”

She goes on (in Learning to converse like adults): Like totalitarians of all ideological stripes and mystics of all religions, painstaking thinkers of all cultures know each other intuitively across the boundaries of opposition. Totalitarians do not like them; indeed they are always at risk from the totalitarians in their own culture as well as those in the enemy's. In spite of this - or because of it- they are determined to construct a trustworthy language, a language dense and durable enough to resist the corruptions of politics.

Her conclusion, after a robust and reflexive self critique (such as needs to be demonstrably built into all world-views), remains hopeful. That language, if any, is religious. We will be lucky if it ever finds its way into prayer. By that, she means self-dispossession, not self-assertion. This is possible for the non-religious too, I'm sure, though it is not my place to advise them how so. I can only describe my own attempts (and failings) in the way my Christian experience has shaped them.

Incidentally, the National Secular Society's newsbrief chose to label Ekklesia's comment on their article, "Liberal Christians stung by NSS President's remarks". We've actually pointed out a few times - for the sake of clarity and understanding - that 'liberal' isn't an accurate or adequate description of where we are coming from. But this doesn’t seem to register. Or with a few other people, either – mostly those of aggressively contrary religious opinion. Moreover, for me at least, an issue of disagreement like this isn't about 'stinging' or 'being stung'. It's about getting beyond tribal caricatures and creating an agenda which is life-enhancing. If groups like NSS choose to exocet this possibility, that's their choice. But it won't do their cause any good. Not if it's a truly humane one.

The last word I'll leave to Madsen - from the journal for the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life (ARIL). It's worth noting that it is intended as a ‘let’s get things in perspective’ remark, not an invitation to complacency: One of the marks of adult thinking is the recognition that things can get very much worse. Quite. Drink, anyone?


Ekklesia is currently researching models of secular life which may be received as an invitation rather than a threat to religious people as well as the non-religious. This includes conversation with humanists and those of other faith. Simon Barrow also writes for Guardian CIF: his columns may be viewed here. See further: Redeeming Religion in the Public Square, and Faith and Politics After Christendom by Jonathan Bartley. FAQs: religion -v- secularism and liberals -v- conservatives.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.