Blair’s Faith Move Misguided

Blair’s faith in difficult task. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has set himself what is arguably the challenge of the millennium: to unite the world’s religions for the general betterment of mankind. His argument is simple: religions can create peaceful co-existence, but, right now, extremists seem to have control of the agenda. “It is a massive undertaking, but how important is it? If all the good tunes are with the extremists … if they’re the ones out there with the strong message and those of us who believe that religious faith is about peaceful co-existence are silent we’ve got a real problem on our hands,” he said at the New York launch alongside his old friend Bill Clinton.
But how valuable, practical, and, indeed, coherent is this new approach? Pundits have already pointed out that, if there was one man to unite the world in peaceful co-existence, it wouldn’t be Tony Blair, a man who’s primacy in Britain is primarily associated with the war in Iraq. But there are deeper issues here, and the usual sport of side-swiping Blair for his past may obscure them. It’s instructive that the last US president who could point to genuine religious credentials both before, during and after his presidency — Jimmy Carter — has indeed spent his post-presidential years campaigning for world peace, but has not attempted anything so grandiose as uniting the world’s religions.
Secularists might argue that this is because Carter, deep down, recognises that religions are the cause of the problem, and can never be the cure. The truth is more likely the opposite: it is Blair, and not Carter, who has swallowed this particular piece of secularist spin.
The real truth (as opposed to any other kind of truth which you might read elsewhere) is that dividing culture and belief into two categories — non-religions versus religious — is a gross over-simplification of the way things are. It is, however, a very common way of seeing the world in Britain, and among British politicians. The equation goes “secular=rational, objective, sane, clean”, “religious=irrational, subjective, unbalanced, tainted”. To accuse someone of being a fundamentalist is (at least in popular discourse) one step away from accusing them of being an extremist, which is itself only one step from being a terrorist. But a fundamentalist is no more than someone who believes in the fundamentals of their religion. The suggestion that fundamentalists of all religions are essentially (one might even say fundamentally) the same is, logically speaking, nonsense. But people who use the term rarely have much contact with fundamentalists of any religion, or, if they do, are not aware that the good, sane people they know are the ones they deride in public.
The key to understanding this is to recognise that religions are not ‘all the same’, but, like the cultures of which they are a part, are remarkably different. What’s more, atheism and secularism are no more different from religions than religions are from each other. If we wish to make a logical category, then we should include atheism, secularism and nationalism along with the religions. Or, better, we should include the different cultural forms which give rise to atheism. Marxist atheists (such as Terry Eagleton) are quite different from neo-Darwinian atheists (such as Richard Dawkins), and are not afraid to say so (viz Terry Eagleton, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching”, LRB, Vol.28, No.20,19 October 2006“), while both are quite different from Nietzchian atheists, who in turn would argue that the atheism of Hitler and the Nazis was a misinterpretation of Nietzche, in the same way that modern Marxist atheists would argue that the atheism of Stalin and Mao was a misinterpretation of Marx. Equally, forms of secularism cover most of spectrum of religion. The world’s first secular state, France, probably conformed most closely in its original incarnation to the ideals put forward by Britain’s National Secular Society (which uses ‘secular’ as a pseudonym for atheism), but the second secular state, the USA, with its frequent references to God in its constitution and other foundational documents, was really created as a nation in which minority Christian evangelical groups could flourish, while the third major secular state, Turkey, is thoroughly Islamic in its outlook. Nor should we forget that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a secular state.
Religions, too, differ widely not only in the code of their beliefs, but in the categories which they regard as belief at all. Most people in Britain are most familiar with Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and so assume that religions are about a book of instructions based on a belief in God. Not all religions believe in the existence of a God! Not all religions even accept the category of a ‘God’ as a valid one. Most of the world’s religions do not have a set of sacred writings, and one of the mistakes which Westerners have often made with Buddhism and Hinduism is that they have taken the writings of these religions, and assumed that they have understood the religions once they have read and (in their view) understood the writings. Many Westerners see religion as a quest for truth or a quest for God, but identifying any kind of quest at all is problematic in many religions.
Tony Blair — to return to him — seems to think that religions are really about co-existence and harmony. Some religions are. Many religions favour co-existence and harmony along with a raft of other virtues which may at times conflict with them. Some religions are largely uninterested in how society is organised. And there are religions which are closely bound up with notions of violent victory over other groups. This last group are not necessarily more fundamentalist than others. Taking a historical example (for reasons of safety as much as anything), the Norse culture of 500-1500 has left us with a wide legacy of literature and recorded history. We know that war, battle and honour were integral to Old Norse religion. But there is no particular evidence to show that the predations of Vikings on the coast of England was linked to any particular upsurge of religious fundamentalism. In defeat, the most active of Viking leaders and their followers were at times willing to ‘convert’ to Christianity as part of the peace terms.
The real problem for Tony Blair is that he has believed the spin that wars are caused by religion, and believed the counter-spin that religions are really about peaceful co-existence. These might be interesting (though ultimately invalid) points in a debate about the net benefit or dis-benefit of religion on mankind. But they are a dangerous oversimplification as the basis of a programme for peace-making.
Fortunately, the notion that Mr Blair himself will make a big difference, is itself a piece of spin which it seems he has also believed. Having guided (he thinks) Britain through ten years of peace and prosperity (if we ignore some inconvenient counter-examples), Blair has left Downing Street to his successor, who, in a few short months, has plunged Britain back into the ill-led and pessimistic world it inhabited under John Major. As the world situation has not dramatically changed (again, if we ignore some inconvenient counter-examples), the difference is clearly Blair himself. Before Blair, chaos under Major. During Blair, peace and prosperity. After Blair, chaos under Brown. Tony Blair really does believe that he can make a difference to the world, and he can do it quickly, and he can do it right.
Once again, we are drawn back to the comparison with Jimmy Carter. Carter was the John Major and Gordon Brown of the USA, rolled into one. He pursued sensible policies, and a visionary foreign policy, but was a victim of circumstances beyond his control, lost his popularity at home, and was the first elected president since the war not to be re-elected for a second term. However, since losing his job, he has campaigned tirelessly for world peace, bit by by, rather than in one grandiose gesture, for which he has been awarded the Nobel prize. Carter’s achievements have been brick by brick, not a single grand design. His credibility has grown as he has done it, and it continues to grow.
People have always said that Blair was good on the big picture, but weak on the details. In this particular case — and perhaps in all cases — it’s the details that matter. And they are not on Blair’s side.

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