The ideology of religion

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  • Published 20050301
  • ISBN: 9780733315480
  • Extent: 268 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm)

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

– W H Auden


THE CAPACITY OF people to behave in ways that are incomprehensible to those who do not share the same beliefs and values is one of the abiding mysteries of human existence. What could motivate someone to fly a jet plane into a building in one of the most densely populated cities on earth; spend months painstakingly assembling the materials needed to blow up themselves and countless others; deny access to affordable life-saving drugs and information because it offends deeply held beliefs; build a wall to divide a country; or declare a tyrant a saviour?

Belief untamed by reason can unleash dark forces, as we witness every day in gruesome news reports from around the globe, some disturbingly close to home, most more distant, in places that appear to be burdened by ancient animosities and challenged by changing social and economic circumstances.

Not so long ago heinous acts were committed in the name of ideology. “Fundamentalism”, as Stuart Sim writes in Fundamentalist World (Icon, 2004) “has replaced communism as the new spectre haunting Western consciousness.” One of the legacies of the Second World War was the displacement of the primacy of religious hatred with ideological contempt. Now inexorably, perhaps inevitably, ideology has once again become religious, as it has done so many times before in the history of human civilisation. Two and a half decades ago, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard influenced a generation when he declared that the days of “grand narratives” were over. The implosion of communism 10 years later briefly proved his theory, but now we seem to have reverted to a world shaped by the grandest narrative, religious belief.

For Murray Sayle, one of this country’s most distinguished international journalists, the rationale and texture of this grand narrative – religion and war – have gnawed away for half a biblical lifetime, ever since he arrived at Lod Airport in 1967 to cover the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt. He has returned many times, reporting the events of the day and wondering about the underlying impulses that so challenged “our tolerant world view”, which despite all it has built, “is now under its ugliest threat in the place where our travels began and civilisation evolved”. He has reached the uncomfortable conclusion that fundamentalist religion and war are old comrades in arms hard-wired into the human brain, destined to extract an enormous cost in the name of survival. His substantial essay draws on his own experiences, the history of the Holy Land and the debates that led to the creation of Israel and struggles for peaceful, secure existence. His reflections on the wellspring of so much fundamentalist fury bring new insights as he places recent events in a broad historical sweep in which religion is used repeatedly for political purposes and periods of peace emerge only periodically.


THE LURE OF fundamentalism is particularly compelling in uncertain times. The black and white certainty of fundamentalist belief provides a comfortable cloak – even a shield – when all around there is complication, conflict and chaos. As a description of an age this is as good as any.

Fundamentalism can, of course, take many forms – religious, ideological, political, economic and social – the common element is belief in the inerrancy of the defining text. At the moment, it is religious fundamentalism – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu – that is on the ascendancy, providing the defining certainty so many seek and threatening to undermine the long-cherished liberal values based on the primacy of reason.

The worldwide revival of religious fundamentalism is at once surprising and predictable. It is surprising, because after centuries of secularism, of concerted attempts to separate – by formal and informal means – religion and politics, of soaring materialism and crumbling ideologies, it is the old verities of religious belief that appear to be defining, if not driving, national and international politics. For those with a longer race memory, this resurgence is more predictable, yet another manifestation of the recurring need to fill what Jean-Paul Sartre described as the “God-shaped hole in the human mind”.

The need to fill this “hole”, and its consequences, are addressed by the writers in The Lure of Fundamentalism. They include John Carroll, Michael Wesley, Tom Morton, Muriel Porter, Wayne Hudson, Barry Hill, Margot O’Neill, Bill Bowtell, Gideon Haigh, Glyn Davis, Michael Wilding, Chas Savage and Natalie Scott. For some the lure is the heartfelt attempt to address an existential crisis and find meaning beyond the material, for others it is a more predictable consequence of economic disadvantage, the failure of the Enlightenment, a sophisticated rebadging of totalitarianism, a quest for moral certainty, power or an opportunity to add a spiritual dimension to secular values. The competing perspectives illustrate the complexity of this subject in a vigorous and confronting manner and are themselves likely to provoke further debate.


EVEN IN AUSTRALIA, one of the most irreligious of countries, a spiritual revival is under way. Much is private and personal, but a growing proportion is public and proselytising, a muscular fundamentalist religiosity that is as unsettling to the well-established secular consensus as it is to ecumenical believers who do not believe their god has a party-political preference. The echoes of the Billy Graham campaigns are unmistakable in the rise of new churches in the suburbs drawing thousands of people every week. Hugh Mackay has spent his career listening to Australians, trying hard to hear the underlying meaning in the countless conversations he conducts with small groups. More than decade ago, in Reinventing Australia(HarperCollins, 1993), he predicted with admirable prescience the emergence of fundamentalism in this country. He wrote at the time, “The turbulence of the past 20 years has led to a craving for simple certainly which can lead, all too easily, to the delusion that simple certainty is justified – even when it is not. The present climate of instability and insecurity creates the very real danger of gullibility and in turn leaves the way open for a dream run by fundamentalists of all kinds – religious, environmental, political, cultural, astrological and economic.”

Predicting social trends is a hazardous business, but as Mackay writes here, his fundamentalist youth armed him with an emotional understanding of the nature of this emerging movement. Three young women raised in different religious traditions, Eliza Blue, Lee Kofman and Randa Abdel-Fattah provide unique perspectives on the role of religion in their lives: the challenging emergence of religion as a new ideology on university campuses, the fashionable appeal of Kabbalah and the fragile acceptance of Muslim women.


THE DIVERSITY OF their experiences is far removed from the formative experiences of an earlier generation of Australians for whom religion was very much a part of politics and daily life, until its importance as a public institution stalled in the 1970s. The emergence of Family First at the federal elections last year took many by surprise, but Michael McKernan’s memoir debunks the notion that religion is new to politics in Australia, recalling the way that the Catholic/Protestant divide defined politics in Australia for decades, often with distressing personal consequences.

Nick Earls was not aware of these decades of sectarian tension when he arrived in Australia with his parents from one of the epicentres of 20th-century religious violence, Northern Ireland. Rather than dwell on his childhood experiences he put the memories away, they seemed so fantastic and incredible – almost unreal – once he started at his Brisbane primary school. But, as he recalls here, the ease with which the abnormal became normal in his childhood provides an insight into how easily people adjust to extraordinary circumstances and has fired his determination to improve the lot of children caught up in war. Rusty Stewart’s photo essay of children in the West Bank and Gaza gives a striking visual insight into the way that kids adapt to their surroundings, no matter how horrific.

Despite the revival of religion in politics, Hugh Mackay remains sceptical about the likelihood of Australia following the US example with an influential religious right determining national political outcomes. And as both Creed O’Hanlon, who has acquired the right to call himself a minister of one of the many flourishing, tax-avoiding churches in Oklahoma, and Bill Bowtell show, the rise of the religious right in America is unlikely to be easily replicated in this country, which does not draw on the same traditions, despite the relentless Australian desire to emulate most things American.


THE LURE OF fundamentalism can be understood on a number of levels – personal, psychological, political – yet the dangers of acquiescing to its simple certainties are profound. If the ground rules of public life change to respond to the undoubted threat of fundamentalist extremes by accepting new terms of engagement that jettison long-established values of tolerance, respect and the primacy of reason, we will all be diminished. As Stuart Sim writes, “There are those among us who are striving to make this a new dark age of dogma, in which everyone has to stick to the script and submit to a higher authority. But that’s just what has to be resisted … Better to be prey to doubts … fundamentalism needs to be unmasked – it’s about power, power over others. Just say no to fundamentalism … and keep saying it.”

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