I am a religious fundamentalist, and very proud of it

August 3, 2004
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 3rd August 2004

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In our abrasive culture, where it sometimes seems that to get ahead you need postgraduate qualifications in rudeness, the worst thing you can call someone is a fundamentalist. You believe? You must be crazy. You pray? You must be a fanatic. You keep religious laws? You must be dangerous. No wonder a well- known press officer is reported to have once said: “We don’t do God.”

Lurking beneath the surface of these put-downs is fear of fundamentalism. Those who believe in the fundamentals of faith are, we seem to assume, living in the past, hostile to the present, incapable of tolerance, vehement in their condemnation of non-believers, and capable of violence. This is a terribly jaundiced view and will do us, in the long run, great harm.

To be sure, every faith has episodes in its past of which it ought to be ashamed. That was the message of the prophets. Every sacred scripture has passages which, if wrongly interpreted, can lead to hate. That is why Jews, and not only Jews, believe that sacred texts need commentaries. Any system of belief can go wrong. That applies to secular no less than to religious ideologies. The 20th century’s two great secular substitutes for faith, Nazism and Communism, began in dreams of Utopia and ended in nightmares of hell. The difference is that religions contain what secular alternatives rarely do: the concept of repentance, a willingness to admit we got it wrong. That is why secular ideologies die but religious faith survives.

No, what is wrong with the word “fundamentalism” is its assumption that the fundamentals of faith are dangerous. On the contrary, religions become dangerous when we forget their fundamentals. The God of Abraham is a God of love, not war; forgiveness, not revenge; humility, not arrogance; hospitality, not hostility. Abraham fights and prays for the people of his generation even though their faith was not his own. He welcomes strangers into his tent and makes a peace treaty with his neighbours. That is the ancestor Jews, Christians and Muslims take as their own. Those are the fundamentals to which we are called.

There is a powerful version of liberalism which holds that the only way to create a free society is through doubt. Because we are not certain, we do not impose our certainties on others. Because we might be wrong, we give people the space to disagree. Isaiah Berlin ended one of his most influential essays with a quote from Joseph Schumpeter: “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.”

I am moved by this idea. It is genuinely noble. But in the end, it fails. If our convictions are only relatively valid, why stand for them unflinchingly? If kindness is only relatively good, why oppose cruelty which is only relatively bad? If all we have is doubt, we will quickly find ourselves in the situation memorably described by Yeats where “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. Relativism is no defence of liberty.

Another Oxford philosopher, John Plamenatz, was much closer to the truth when he pointed out that the modern doctrine of freedom was born in the 17th century in an age of strong and conflicting religious beliefs. “Liberty of conscience”, he wrote, “was born, not of indifference, not of scepticism, not of mere open-mindedness, but of faith.”

How so? Because people who cared deeply about their own religious convictions eventually came to realise that others who had quite different convictions cared no less deeply about theirs. If I claim the right to practise my faith in freedom, can I deny you yours? That is how European liberalism was born, not through relativism but in the religious belief that God does not want us to impose our faith on others by force.

The only defence against dangerous fundamentalism is counter-fundamentalism: belief, rooted in our sacred texts, in the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person, the imperative of peace and the need for justice tempered by compassion. We are not blind concatenations of genes endlessly seeking to replicate themselves with no purpose other than survival. We are here because we were created in love, and we fulfil our purpose by creating in love.

These are beliefs most Jews, Christians and Muslims share, as do those of others faiths or none. They are the real fundamentals. What matters now is that they, not their denials, prevail.