Christianity and Islam

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:18 pm on 23rd March 2006.

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Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat 3:18 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, I am not a Christian, a Muslim or an adherent of any religion. In taking part in this debate, I therefore feel rather like a lion in a den of Daniels. Sometimes it is suggested that only religious people can understand religion and should therefore debate it. I am sure none of your Lordships thinks that, which is like saying that only women can discuss feminism.

Although I am no believer, I acknowledge that religion gives meaning to many people's lives and can inspire them to do great things for mankind. Many of the ethical injunctions of Mohammed would—if practised—make the world a much better place, while I have always regarded the Sermon on the Mount as one of the outstanding moral texts of our culture. At the same time, parts of the Bible show Jehovah to be a jealous, vengeful and brutal God while parts of the Koran and the Hadith preach a morality that I find repellent. Religion has done and does much good, and much harm; it has relieved and relieves much suffering, and has caused and causes it. The issue is how the positive and tolerant elements in both religions under discussion can overcome the negative and intolerant ones. That depends on how far secular Christianity and what I see as modern, secular Islam can contain and overcome fundamentalism.

Currently, fundamentalism is in the ascendant. That is something we must recognise. In the United States, Christian fundamentalism has a powerful influence on the Bush administration, though fortunately less pervasive than some suggest. Some members of that administration could be better described as Hobbesian rather than holy rollers. Yet there seems little doubt that the influence of fundamentalist evangelicals has increased in the last decade. Creationism is on the rise and has even raised its head in Britain, where the evangelical wing of the Church of England—less fundamentalist, I accept, than its American counterpart—is certainly gaining influence.

As for the Muslim world, I have long thought that we have underestimated the effect of the Iranian revolution of 1979, which gave a national base to revolutionary, theocratic and fundamentalist Islam. I agree with my noble friend Lady Williams that matters can be over-simplified, but on the whole this regime is far less likely to be swayed by rational consideration than we tend to assume—or, certainly, than Jack Straw seems to realise. As I have argued elsewhere, just as Lenin's rise to power in Russia provided a national base for international Marxism, so the coming to power of the mullahs in Iran has provided a base for fundamentalism. Events since 9/11—including, I am sorry to say, our own invasion of Iraq—have only strengthened the forces of fundamentalism.

How, then, can we control them? What worries me is the reluctance of many tolerant Christians and Muslims to denounce the excesses of their fundamentalist co-religionists, and some of the doctrines that they preach. How many Churchmen have attacked the Vatican and American fundamentalists for their opposition to contraception? The effect has been an effective ban on promoting condoms by international agencies. That prevents action against AIDS; by helping to spread AIDS, it is likely to cause the death of tens of millions of people—a disastrous consequence of the dogma of some in the Catholic Church and of fundamental, born-again Christians. Indeed, sometimes I ask, as Katharine Whitehorn has done, why one so often wishes that born-again people had not been born the first time. One could also add that the harm done by Christian Zionists who support and help the spread of Jewish settlements in Palestine has created one of the biggest obstacles to peace.

Why do we not see more public denunciation—although there is some—by tolerant, secular Muslims of Sharia law and its effect on women, and the suppression of women's rights in the theocracies of the world? The outcry is often somewhat muted. Certainly, the reaction to the fatwa declared against Salman Rushdie was muted. There is also a lack of clarity in the interpretation of certain passages in the Koran and the Hadith, suggesting that apostasy deserves death. It is notable how few Muslims defect. There are plenty of Protestants and Catholics who abandon their religion, as one would expect in the normal course of events, but there are very few Muslims. Part of the reason is fear.

We are seeing a steady increase in the influence of religion. The Government have declared their support for faith schools. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh—who I am sorry to see is absent, and who made an absolutely first-class speech—pointed out, at a meeting I attended last night, that there has been a change in the attitude of Muslims over the last 30 years. If you asked a Muslim "Who are you?" 30 years ago, he would have said "I am a Pakistani" or "I am an Indian"; "I am a Marxist" or "I am a Conservative"; "I am a carpenter" or "I am a sociologist". Now, however, it is much more likely that he or she will identify him or herself as a Muslim by religion.

Definition by religion does not, on the whole, lead people to adopt a secular view of Islam. Those who identify themselves by their religion are likely to believe that the Koran is literally the word of God. The trouble with the belief that sacred texts are the word of God is that you cannot argue with them. You can say that philosophy sometimes raises questions which have no answer, or which you may not answer; but religion often means answers which may not be questioned. Belief in sacred texts implies certainty. It leaves little room for doubt. One of the reasons I am against the spread of faith schools is that they persuade children to believe rather than to question. The essence of a liberal education is that children should be taught to ask questions.

My hero is Socrates, the grand questioner and arch-enemy of fundamentalism. One of the most glorious events in the history of civilisation was the Enlightenment, when certainties were replaced by doubt. It was the birth of modern science, which does not deal with certainties. We are currently seeing a retreat from Enlightenment values. If you know you are right and admit no possibility that you are mistaken, then you are an enemy of tolerance. Doubt is the opposition to dogma, and is essential to the workings of an effective democracy.

I do not argue that religious leaders do not promote tolerance; of course not. We have the example of the admirable speech made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester at the start of this debate. I do not think there is a more tolerant body of men than the Bishops in this House. The Archbishop of Canterbury is a splendidly undogmatic figure. Many statements of those who argue for a secular, democratic Islam—as does the opposition to the present regime in Iran, which we have proscribed—likewise show every degree of tolerance. Unless religious leaders face fundamentalism head on, however, the rise in the influence of religion is unlikely to enhance the prospect of greater understanding and peace.


Bob Churchill
Posted on 28 Apr 2006 12:01 pm (Report this annotation)

Dick Taverne is a credit to the Liberal Democrats and to liberal democracy more generally. Listen to your conscience and push ever harder, Dick.