The Search for Certainty
"TYPE=PICT;ALT=George W. Bush
with Pastor Dr. Louis Leon after
Sunday Services at St. John's
How much should faith guide policy?
BBC Radio 4's Analysis: The Search for Certainty, will be broadcast on Thursday, 23 December, 2004 at 20:30
Read the programme transcript
Religion is back. It is winning elections and is offering a slogan for the discontented.
After its prominence in the recent US presidential election it is apparently guiding the leadership of the western world.
But it also acts as a battle-cry for the enemies of all things western. Assumptions that the fast-globalising world of
consumerism and secular habits would sweep faith aside have proved to be wrong.
In 'the Search for Certainty' Bruce Clark asks what lies behind this surprising new trend, affecting in particular the
Islamic world as well as the US. He also explores what effect it might it have on our common future.
Even if its direct ability to shape modern societies is limited, he discovers, religion is making its voice heard in debates
about values which are of increasing importance.
The contributors are the Muslim convert Tim Winter of Cambridge University, Robert Royal of the Faith and Reason
Institute in Washington, the Canadian Muslim writer Irshad Manji, Biblical scholar Margaret Barker, French specialist
on Islam Olivier Roy and expert on global fundamentalism Professor Steve Bruce.
Presenter: Bruce Clark
Producer: Chris Bowlby
Editor: Nicola Meyrick
Please note that this is BBC copyright and may not
be reproduced or copied for any other purpose.
THE SEARCH FOR CERTAINTY
TRANSCRIPT OF A RECORDED
Presenter: Bruce Clark
Producer: Chris Bowlby
Editor: Nicola Meyrick
201 Wood Lane
020 8752 7279
Broadcast Date: 23.12.04
Repeat Date: 26.12.04
Taking part in order of appearance:
Hebrew Scholar and Methodist Preacher
Director of Faith and Reason Institute, Washington
Lecturer in Divinity, Cambridge University
French Scholar of Muslim World
Sociologist specializing in fundamentalist Religion
CLARK: It’s only 15 years since Soviet communism collapsed – and with it, the
whole idea of closed creeds which every member of society is supposed to believe,
and which claim to explain almost everything. At least that’s how it seemed at
the time. Ideologies which offered the comfort of certainty seemed to be out and
a much more individual quest for truth appeared to be in. But things have turned
different. All over the world, the role of traditional religions in public life
is making a comeback. And the beliefs which are flourishing today are not usually
of the lukewarm, apologetic variety. Margaret Barker, a Hebrew scholar and
Methodist preacher, has observed this change at the grass roots.
BARKER: The churches experiencing the most rapid growth at the moment are those
who do have a fundamentalist reading of scripture or, at any rate, a very Bible
based approach if you see the massive growth of, for example, the Pentecostal
Church. So that certainly is where the growth is and this may be that the certainty
of Bible based Christianity in its simplest and strongest form is something that
of people are opting for these days. Now why that is happening, one can only begin
to speculate. You can either say this is the Holy Spirit at work if you are a
Christian creature, or you can say – if you are trying to be objective and cynical
– these are people whose worlds are collapsing around them and they’re looking
for something secure.
CLARK: The Holy Spirit or a search for a safe refuge prompted by desperation and
insecurity? And if the movement we call fundamentalism is gaining ground among
Christians and Muslims in particular, what does that mean for the rest of society
in countries where this debate is raging? How much do new forms of belief in places
as the Islamic world and the United States really have in common? And
are these new forms a product of modernity, or more of a reaction against it?
Whatever their source of inspiration, religious believers are not leaving
unchallenged the assumptions of secularism. Irshad Manji is a Canadian Muslim
writer whose book, ‘The Trouble with Islam’ radically challenges Islam to
modernise. But she insists that religion has a vital role to play and she has clear
ideas about where today’s resurgence of faith is coming from.
MANJI: I call it you know the revenge of the religious. And what is it a revenge
against? It’s a reaction really against sort of deconstructionism; this notion
that everything, everything can be
dismantled and understood rationally. And when that’s the case, there is no
mystery; and when there’s no mystery, there is no reverence for
something outside of ourselves. And so many people, whatever their
generation, feel that really what we’ve become is a narcissistic, selfish society
in which we are strangers to God, strangers to nature, strangers to tradition.
(see AYN RAND)
CLARK: Religious language sounds strident these days, and that’s rather
frightening for people of no particular creed, who prefer to pick and choose their
values like good comparison shoppers.
But people of faith see things the other way round; they live in a materialist
age where religion must strive energetically for the right to be heard in the public
arena. Robert Royal is an American Catholic intellectual who runs the Faith and
Reason Institute, a think-tank in Washington.
ROYAL: There is a place in public discourse for religious arguments, there is
a place for highly sophisticated, rational arguments, and there may even be a place
for aggressively atheistic arguments. But the problem, as we perceive it, is that
if the properly secular nature of public life in the United States, which offers
to various religious traditions, even those outside the Judeo Christian orbit,
if that itself becomes a substantive position that seeks to eliminate religious
discourse in public - we look at countries like France, less so I guess the UK
- but we see certain countries that seem to us to have imposed a secularism that
seems to squeeze out any religious discourse in the public square. And to our
minds that really is a violation of the kind of pluralism that should be encouraged
in truly open democratic societies.
CLARK: Of course, when religion is banished from the public arena, that doesn’t
always imply that the political authorities are hostile to faith. Sometimes,
official secularism may simply be a practical response to the existence of many
different faiths. When people can’t decide whether to put a crucifix or a Muslim
crescent or a star
of David on the school wall, it may seem sensible to leave the wall
completely empty. But people of faith can experience this exclusion as a kind of
MANJI: In many ways secularism is not just a way of life. It is now an entitlement,
an expectation that many Europeans have – to the point where it’s actually moved
from secularism to, in many cases, atheism. And missionary atheism, as I would
call it - the kind of atheism that seems to impose itself on others. The irony,
of course, is that
such atheism replicates the very sin of fundamentalism that it originally sought
to castigate. The end result of all of this is that many Muslims in Europe are
made to feel like they’re inadequate, weak, oppressed, indoctrinated and
brainwashed, and sometimes even dangerous, simply because they choose to practice
organised religion. The real tragedy here is that many Muslims as a result tell
me that they feel driven into the arms of fundamentalists.
CLARK: But what exactly do people like Irshad Manji mean when they talk about
fundamentalism and distinguish it from other kinds of faith? Surely if religion
is about anything at all, it’s about belief in certain fundamental ideas or writings
which are supposed to
underpin everything else that we think and say? Tim Winter is a lecturer in divinity
at Cambridge University – and under his other name, Abdul Hakim Murad – a respected
interpreter of his adopted Muslim faith. Both as an academic and as a scholar,
he’s trained to define his terms rather carefully. What does he understand by
WINTER: The word fundamentalism always has to be used with caution. It originated
about a hundred years ago in an American Christian context and to wheel it out
and apply it to a non-Christian context sometimes begs some important questions.
If we mean by it a literalist strategy for reading scriptures that produces social
results that liberal journalists find objectionable, then I think it’s probably
term to use because it’s really a value judgement. If we mean a conservative and
cautious approach to reading scriptures that take seriously the claim that God
is indeed in some sense speaking through them, then I suppose it can be used, but
that I suspect is not usually the way in which it’s used.
CLARK: Fundamentalism will always be a tricky word, open to much abuse, especially
in the highly charged atmosphere after September the 11th. But there is no easy
substitute, so we should at least use it with an awareness that it can mean different
things in different contexts. One consistent component of most definitions is an
emphasis on the importance of text as a statement of core belief. In the search
for certainty, the way we read sacred scripture plays a central role.
For many people, a fundamentalist is a person with an unshakeable
attachment to every word of a particular text. But in her work as a Biblical scholar,
Margaret Barker is in pursuit of something more elusive.
BARKER: The aim of all that we try to do is to stand where these writers stood,
to look where they looked and try to see what it was that they saw. And it is their
vision which we have to try and
make available for our own generation. Not the packaging, not the
particular cultural mores, anything like that. I want to look always to what it
is that that text bears witness to. It may be inaccurate, it may have been subjected
to human errors, all sorts of things, but if you stand back and you read these
writers sympathetically, you can glimpse what it is that they saw and that is what
we must hang on to. These are the fundamentals, there’s no question of that.
CLARK: But even though she rejects the more simple-minded kind of literalism,
she sees an even greater danger in the sort of relativism that sees no such thing
as universal truth.
BARKER: If I had to choose between being a fundamentalist and being a woolly
liberal, I would come down on the side of fundamentalists because their instinct
is right; that there are certain things that you cannot compromise on. I think
they have got the broad picture right, they’ve got some of the detail wrong. And
so to hang on to the core tradition is very, very important. Everything is not
you have a tradition that hasn’t got any definition of what it is, then in the
end of course it doesn’t exist. You define yourself by your boundaries. I think
one of the problems with more liberal Christians of our present time is that they
think that the tradition has no boundaries. It can be all-inclusive in the worst
possible sense and it ends up of course being nothing. So the fundamentalists
have got a great deal to teach us.
CLARK: If all people were doing was teaching new ideas to their fellow believers,
the rest of society would probably let them get on with it. But people wouldn’t
be so concerned by this activity if it were merely a new mind-set or a new way
of reading holy texts. For a small minority of its adherents, fundamentalism is
also an inspiration to violence. Olivier Roy, a French scholar of the Muslim world,
is struck by
the way one extreme version of Islam has taken on the role once played by
revolutionary socialism. It has become a battle-cry for the powerless, whether
they were born into Muslim families or convert to militant Islam in a spirit of
ROY: When you are a young guy in destitute neighbourhoods, in some sort of revolt
against the society and looking for a cause, what do you find now? Islam. There
are many boys of the neighbourhoods you know who convert to Islam. This phenomenon
of conversion is very important in the West now. In any Al Quaeda networks which
has been caught, discovered recently, there have always been some – and sometimes
many – converts in it. So this shows that the revolt in the name of Islam is not
I would say backlash of the traditional Muslim identity against liberalisation,
but on the contrary; it is seen by many uprooted young boys as the new cause to
fight Society with a big ‘S’ and the US imperialism.
CLARK: For some Muslims, then, their faith becomes a way of expressing a more
generalized grievance against all things western and capitalist. That sounds
rather different from the conservative Christians who voted in large numbers for
President George W Bush. But for Olivier Roy, there are big psychological
similarities between the experience undergone both by born-again Christians and
newly devout Muslims, what he calls their religiosity.
ROY: By religiosity, I mean the way a believer experiences his own religion.
So it has nothing to do with the dogmatic content of religion, it has nothing to
do with theology. It has to do with the way a Muslim acts, behaves as a Muslim,
as a believer. And I see many parallels with Protestant fundamentalism. First
you know the idea that to be a born again, you need to break with the past, to
the traditions. When you are born again, you are not interested in the
religion and traditions of your grandfather, your family and so on and so on.
CLARK: That’s a surprising point, but it’s an important one. We sometimes
associate fundamentalism with going back in time, returning to the good old days
– or the bad old days, depending on your point of view. But in fact, today’s
fundamentalists, whether peaceful
or otherwise, are very much part of the me-generation, the generation that insists
on making its own choices, even if that means breaking with the extended family
and its way of life. Among Muslim scholars, too, there are those who regard
fundamentalism as modern, in the worst sense of the word. Tim Winter sees a huge
difference between traditional or orthodox readings of Islam on the one hand -
and the views on the other of a militant fringe that is both unrepresentative and
very recent in origin.
WINTER: Well I think everybody can see that twenty or thirty years ago, nobody
had really heard of the kind of fundamentalist movement that we see today in the
Islamic world. The mosques were still full, but this kind of targeting of
civilians, for instance, the aberrant use of terrorist violence is something that
really is very new.
It’s novel in the history of the religion and it reflects a particular decadence
in Muslim religious discourse in certain places. It hasn’t gained much inroad
into the leadership of the religion, but in the masses on the streets, as it were,
particularly in very tense, unnatural places like Gaza, the slums of Baghdad and
other places, it does have a certain standing unfortunately.
And this is the great challenge of the leadership of the religion – how to reassert
orthodoxy in the face of a growing groundswell of fundamentalist revolt.
CLARK: It’s a long way from unnatural places like Gaza to the prosperity of
America’s Bible Belt. This difference in social context makes a huge difference
to the role that religion plays. So for
all the psychological parallels, we shouldn’t overestimate the similarity between
Middle Eastern-style fundamentalism and the American variety.
Professor Steve Bruce of Aberdeen University is a sociologist who has
specialised in Protestant communities in Northern Ireland and the US and he now
studies fundamentalists in all their global forms.
BRUCE: Let’s divide successful and failed states. The kind of fundamentalisms
that you get in these two conditions are very different. In a lot of the Islamic
world, there is no successful
government or state or social support system or health system or education system.
In that world fundamentalism is very attractive not just because it explains your
problems and offers a solution to those problems, which is get back to God, but
it also offers viable social institutions. They actually provide a more effective
society than their governments do. What’s going on in countries like the United
States is very different. In the United States, you have a very successful economy,
a very successful government, but you have serious arguments about personal
morality, about culture, and about the place that religion ought to have in shaping
those things. I don’t
see that there’s been any great change in the United States.
ROYAL: Here in the United States at least, Evangelicals are educated at levels
higher than the average, as Catholics are actually these days. They are more
prosperous than average Americans and we explain it somewhat through the fact that
religion tends to be a stabilising force that enables people to get higher
education, to be healthier,
to be more regular in their work habits, etcetera. So I certainly don’t believe
in crude or Biblical fundamentalism, but I would distinguish that from strong
belief in Biblical principles that even among many Evangelicals is under girded
by now an attempt to use reason.
CLARK: Robert Royal, director of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington.
It’s certainly true that beliefs play a different role among successful players
in the social contest than they do
among the angry and dispossessed. America’s conservative Christians
usually employ peaceful means to advance their cause. There are some
exceptions, like the people who make bomb attacks on abortion clinics. But Steve
Bruce points out that they don’t on the whole try to impose a new regime on society.
BRUCE: In the United States of America, the Government is widely accepted as
successful. It’s intensely legitimate.
Even fundamentalists accept the autonomy of the state, so they accept the
democratic method. They fight elections, they try and fight court battles, they
will try and persuade people to see the world their way. But basically they accept
that there is a separation between law and morality; that people have a right to
sin if they want to and that there’s nothing you can do about that. There are
many countries in the world in which the state has never managed to establish itself
in that way, where there is no creditable secular organisation, and in those
settings the religious institutions have a great deal of power and influence and
there isn’t the same acceptance of the idea of a government and of rights of
individuals separate from pleasing God.
CLARK: Does that mean that Christian fundamentalists are democrats with a small
d, who accept the idea of a free contest of ideas in a political arena which is
essentially neutral, while the Muslim fundamentalists are theocrats whose ultimate
aim is an overtly
Islamic regime? Certainly not, says Tim Winter. From his point of view as a Muslim
convert, there is plenty of democracy in the heart-land of Islam and plenty of
theocracy in the historically Christian world
WINTER: The British state constitutionally in some dim way is theocratic: the head
of state has to be the head of the established religion. The House of Commons
every day begins with speakers’ prayers. There is a kind of institutionalised
Anglicanism in things like the blasphemy legislation, for instance. So
theocracy as such is certainly not incompatible with the usual western
ideals of democratic process. The issue is whether Islam is more resistant to
that than Christianity, and I think that this may be just a matter of perspective.
The Muslim world generally is very much in favour of democracy.
CLARK: But isn’t it the case that any Muslim would say that the ideal form of
government would be a religious form of government; that a secular government can
never be ideal?
WINTER: There is no standard model for an Islamic state; that you also had in
Indonesia, for instance – the world’s largest Muslim country – the ulema, the Muslim
religious leaders, were at the forefront of the pro-democracy movement there, and
that’s the case in many other Muslim countries. We tend to forget that at least
of Muslims today live in functioning democracies.
CLARK: Whether or not they live in democracies, Muslims - like everybody else
- live in societies which are modern or at least modernizing: the sort of societies
in which each
generation (if not every individual) makes its own choices. So even when they
claim to be rejecting the contemporary world, they are doing so in a modern
environment, in a modern way. In the view of Olivier Roy, this point holds good
both for what he calls the neo-Christians in the United States and also the rapidly
changing societies of the Islamic world.
ROY: The sociology of the Muslim world is changing and this sociology is turning
western. For example, there are less and less children in the families. The
fertility rate now of the Muslim world is close to the western world. All the
sociological factors show that
the Muslim societies are becoming westernised.
CLARK: So we’re living in a world where the religious have to compromise with
the secular at a tactical level because that’s simply the kind of world we live
ROY: I think that the political theme is less and less relevant for the
Islamists. They gave up the idea of building an Islamic state. They now suppress
the issue of values. And we have the same phenomena with the American
neo-Christians, you know. In fact, the American neo-Christians are not fighting
to have a Christian state in America. They are promoting values. They are promoting
social issues you know like abortion, divorce, family and things like that.
CLARK: To be modern, then, is to live in a world of tactical battles and short-term
partnerships. You can’t really hope to convert the whole of society, from top to
bottom, to your way of thinking. So even if your instincts are averse to compromise,
you have to pick and choose your objectives, and pick and choose your allies, in
a rather pragmatic way. Focusing on values rather than beliefs can be a way of
broadening your coalition. Robert Royal of the Faith and Reason Institute in
ROYAL: There are certain issues where I believe that faith and reason intersect
very strongly. I don’t believe, for example, that abortion is particularly a
religious issue. I think that Catholics and other Orthodox Jews here in the United
States and Evangelicals are united in their opposition to abortion, but that’s
because we take seriously the obligation to look into the science of what we think
a developing embryo is. I don’t think that that’s a particular religious point
CLARK: It’s not just Christians and non-Christians who may find themselves
campaigning together for specific causes. Very different varieties of Christian
may find it expedient, for certain purposes, to put their doctrinal disputes aside.
As Steve Bruce puts
BRUCE: If you get involved in politics, if you get involved in the world, then
you have to do deals, you have to compromise. So, for example, on a Sunday night
you may denounce the Catholic Church as being the anti-Christ, but if you want
to win the elections on a Monday you have to work with conservative Catholic groups.
Now a lot of conservative Protestants in the United States can’t do that kind of
alternation. I mean their religion tells them that Catholicism is
wrong. They can’t then for the sake of politics suddenly pretend that
Catholicism is right. Some fundamentalists will always be attracted to the idea
of a pious retreat; that you try and cut yourself off as much as possible from
the world in order to go to heaven and you wait for that happy day.
CLARK: There, if you like, is the fundamentalist dilemma: to be engaged in modern
society, or even to be engaged in fighting the main trends of modern society, means
accepting the give-and-take, the tactical tradeoffs, the coalition-broking which
are bound to occur in a pluralist society. That’s hard to bear if your focus in
fundamentals. You can urge people to reject modern fashions, in lifestyle as well
as politics. But you probably can’t roll back the modern trend towards greater
freedom of choice in almost everything. As Steve Bruce observes, the certainty
of faith has to co-exist with the uncertainty of shifting political alliances,
shifting personal choices – and the probability that society as a whole will move
in exactly the wrong direction from your point of view.
BRUCE: If you go back to the new Christian rights wish list and say well what’s
happened on those things over the last twenty years. They want to ban
homosexuality. Far from banning it and putting homosexuals back in the closet,
we now have homosexuals largely accepted: we have a serious push for gay marriage,
we have homosexuals portrayed on television programmes as perfectly normal people.
Fundamentalists are opposed to divorce. Has the divorce rate gone down?
No, it hasn’t, and it’s actually now as high for fundamentalists as it is for other
people. Fundamentalists want to return to conventional gender roles.
Well the proportion of women working full time in the labour force has
continued to go up, it hasn’t gone down. There is no point on a new
Christian rights agenda, the things that are special to it rather than just being
what any conservative American wants, on which it’s succeeded.
(In other words their VALUES are at odds with freedom and what people want-LB)
CLARK: Of course, the fundamentalists argue that society’s decadence is exactly
why they are now obliged to raise their voices. But however hard they try, they
probably can’t create a different order in which decisions are made for us by
representatives of religious or political authority whose word is unquestioned.
We can’t stop living in a world of choice, even if the choices we happen to make
are deeply conservative ones. As Irshad Manji sees things, young Muslims like her
living in the West are often bewildered by the range of options, the routes to
happiness, laid out before them: that’s what is prompting them to look elsewhere.
MANJI: In the west we are assaulted by alternatives – choices of career paths
and fashions and gadgets and even marriage partners – and this can lead not just
to empowerment but to its very opposite: to a sense of alienation and
disorientation. And here’s my theory, and it is only a theory. Muslims may be
more susceptible to that kind of disorientation than others because you know by
and large we’re not
taught to ask questions, so adapting to the notion of having alternatives can be
painful and certainly disorienting
CLARK: To cope with this confusion, Irshad Manji believes, religion needs a breath
of fresh air.
MANJI: I do a lot of speaking about diversity, both on European and on American
campuses. And even before 9/11, after many of my speeches about diversity, I
noticed that it was young Muslims who were emerging from the audiences and they
would gather round at the side of the stage or the side of the floor and they would
start chatting excitedly amongst themselves and then walk over, sometimes
be sure, but nonetheless walk over and say things to me like “Irshad, we need voices
such as yours to help us open up this religion of ours because if we don’t let
some oxygen in, we’re leaving it.” These kids were telling me that they were
desperate to reconcile their pluralistic realities here in the west with their
CLARK: People like that won’t be satisfied by fundamentalism of the cruder
variety. Or will they? Fundamentalism presents itself as something anti-modern,
but it is modern enough to be attractive and marketable to restless young consumers.
Its message can certainly be delivered by modern means, like websites and satellite
television. But if Tim Winter is right, the spiritual thirst which drives some
people in a fundamentalist direction will not be that easily slaked.
WINTER: For a million years or longer, human beings seem to have believed in some
kind of transcendant world, whether it be pixies and sprites in the forests or
one celestial God in heaven, and it’s
not clear whether we can really live for many generations without believing the
way that our species has always believed. Fundamentalism is one aspect of the
disillusionment with the promises of secularity that we’re seeing in our end of
this new century. But there are others. We tend to pay less attention to the
increasing credibility of religion amongst scientists, and I see that in my own
home town of Cambridge where it’s more respectable to be a scientist who believes
in God than it was twenty or certainly fifty years ago. So fundamentalism is one
of the reactions that human beings I think very legitimately have against the sort
of grey mediocrity that secularity tends to represent. But there are other
reactions as well and we can only hope and pray that it’s the more constructive
reactions that eventually prevail.
BARKER: It is the vision of eternity, yes, so by definition it is beyond time,
it transcends gender, culture, all these things,
because without the vision we’re in darkness, aren’t we?
CLARK: What Margaret Barker and Tim Winter are both suggesting is that there are
two different impulses driving people to rediscover faith: a search for certainty,
and a search for the sublime. This quest for the sublime takes place in a modern
context, but it’s looking for something that pertains to no particular century.
It’s understandable that people will try to escape the chaos, the messiness, the
need for awkward choices and compromises that appear to be features of our own
time. They may then try turning the clock back, or forward, to a different era
in the hope that things will be more predictable and orderly.
(Chaos theory does not help people looking for certainty-LB)
Like all attempts at time travel - so far at least - that enterprise is doomed.
To sceptics, it seems obvious that fundamentalism is self-contradictory and as
a political project, destined to fail. But people shouldn’t fall into the secular
trap of dismissing the whole thing as simply irrelevant. The hunger for some
reconnection with the eternal, in the way we live and the values we espouse, is
no longer in retreat.