Religion, anti-religion and the perils of being right

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
16 Jun 2007

One of the best ways of avoiding the need to look in the mirror is thinking of someone or something far, far uglier than you – so that you can point at them and blame them for the world’s (and maybe even your own) disfigurements.

In this way problems become a lot easier to face. Because even if our difficulties seem intractable, we still have the comfort of realising that we are right and someone else is plain wrong. And in knowing that if only they would do and think as we do, all would be well.

Put like that, few would subscribe to such an outlook. But in practice, if you listen to the way many people talk about each other and their competing convictions, this other-blaming approach is fast becoming an unwritten rule of public discourse.

Visit certain kinds of religious websites and you will see that the imminent collapse of civilization is all due to ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’ in the other camp – the former being in league with “gays, relativists and atheists” (so it says in the one I have just been reading), the latter being mere ciphers for “neo-fascists and theocrats” (ditto).

Nor is this just a religious game. Many non- or anti-religious groups similarly believe that pretty much all of the world’s woes are down to religion (a bit like arguing that all music is responsible for noise). According to A. C. Grayling’s new book (Against All Gods, Oberon, 2007), faith – which he defines as “the negation of thought”, thus eliminating any kind of reasoned discourse about it – is intrinsically dogmatic, defensive and truth-denying.

The boundary between conviction and fanaticism is one that should worry all of us in a climate like this. The true fanatic, one could say, is the person who comes to see fanaticism as a danger only for someone else. That “someone else” is regarded as fundamentally deluded or incapable of true decency (unlike ourselves).

Thankfully, the vast majority of people who entertain such instincts are restrained by others of a more humanising kind. They do not get to turn iron prejudice into public policy. But the ones who do cause mayhem – often with bombs and bullets. The difference between armed and unarmed fanaticism is very far from trivial.

Fanaticism takes root by dividing the world into black and white, good and bad – with whole categories of people (the ‘religious’ or ‘atheists’, say) consigned to one or other fate by a process of labelling that eschews complexity and mistakes assertion for argument.

Above all, fanaticism avoids self-criticism, or passes over it far too quickly for it to make any real difference to how it views the world. It is unwilling to meet its opponents socially (that would imperil the security of indulging in hit-and-run argument) and when it encounters reasoned critique it is especially unmoved (“what you have said only strengthens me in my conviction that I am utterly right”).

Note that I am writing of fanaticism here, not ‘fanatics’ and ‘non-fanatics’. It may be the case that some people are entirely overwhelmed by a “they are guilty, I am innocent” view of the world. But it is equally true that everyone is capable of some compassion and generosity. The Quakers say “there is that of God” in everyone; humanists (as their name proposes) believe in an inherent humanity to all people.

Someone I know who worked on development and women’s issues in Afghanistan during the darkest days of the Taliban (the situation is far from pretty now, by the way) has numerous surprising stories of compassion on the part of those close to a regime singularly lacking in it, for example.

Perhaps it is the underlying impossibility of putting an absolute gulf between ourselves and those who are responsible for perpetuating or legitimating terrible crimes that produces the fanatical quest to do precisely that.

Certain kinds of religious people achieve a self-preserving (actually self-justifying) gap between themselves and their perceived enemies through demonology. Non-believers do it by a similar process differently constructed: convincing themselves that they are inherently rational by virtue of being ‘non-religious’, and that ‘religious’ people are inherently irrational by not thinking like them.

It is this process of putting ourselves “beyond contradiction” and in a position of unassailable rightness that is so damaging, whatever label (religious or non-religious) it wears. What it does is to demolish the actual plurality, complexity and ambiguity of the world – and to falsify real people (who are gloriously messy) by making them mere pawns in an argument which has been loaded from the outset.

The upshot of this trend towards blinded confrontation between hardening ideologies is that a phoney war (Huntingdon’s “clash of civilisations”) becomes a real one: the clash of barbarisms.

So the really challenging question to Christians, to Muslims, to humanists, to secularists, to those of many faiths, no-faith and anti-faith is this: Where, in your outlook and way of thinking, is there an in-built self-criticism of the kind that will pull you back from fanaticism and enable you to acknowledge your own capacity for betrayal and victimisation – not just to point the finger at others?

That “in-built” bit is important. Avoiding the clutches of over-determining ideology in any life-stance is not just about being open to how others see you (which is vital). It is about having a mechanism within your own outlook which enables you to do so with some equanimity – to be able to say, for example: “I am not an atheist, but I recognise the importance of the atheist critique of where I stand”, or “I am not a Christian, but I can recognise the humanity and integrity of being one.”

This isn’t about soft agreement. It is about recognising that no-one has a monopoly of rationality (the ability to articulate reasonable grounds for a viewpoint), or faith (trust in the efficacy of goodness).

Christianity, for example, can never legitimately avoid its own contradictions if it remains properly focussed on the Cross – the place of confrontation where our human and religious propensities to demand sacrifice, to create systems that kill, and to legitimate injustice are exposed to a searing and unanswerable criticism. That of the innocent victim.

In the Christian story Jesus must be killed, not because a vengeful God wills it to be so (that is the lie that has grown up around it), but because his very existence as an enemy-lover exposes the final non-necessity of our attachment to cruelty, scapegoating, and self-preservation at all costs. This also implies the non-necessity of the systems of oppression built on such attachments. In those terms, it is “him or us”.

The Cross is also the place where the perpetuators of cycles of killing (both religious and non-religious) are undone by a response which is truly radical precisely because, at great personal cost, it refuses to perpetuate the core problem. This is the response of non-retaliation. "Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing...”

By contrast, to strike back, though logical if you do not think that the power of love can finally overcome the love of power (which is what belief in God means), continues a process whereby we "the curse increased, we fight the power - and live by it by day."

In the midst of its internal warring and its external anxieties about cultures which are less and less well disposed to it, organised Christianity urgently needs to re-capture that sense of life-changing self-critique embodied in the Cross – a concrete warning that both religious and non-religious fanatics (not least we ourselves) can crucify.

In this way, a deep and transforming awareness of our own failure to live truthfully in the light unconditional love should be evident in any criticism Christians dare to offer to those of other persuasions. Not out of masochism (as some will claim), but out of reflexivity, faithfulness – and hope.

This is a darned difficult ethic to adhere to, of course. Because living and forgiving is tough. Much tougher than condemning and killing. Which is why for some of us it is a matter of prayer not just of will.


Some background on how I came to write this: Negotiating the spirit of unreason. Moving further in a theological direction, see also my short piece Freed by the darkened imagination (on the weblog FaithInSociety - from which this article was developed), and James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: Crossroad, 1998), together with this appraisal from The Anglican Theological Review. See James Alison's own website ( for more resources on scapegoating, victimology and its antidotes - and much more.

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