Guest Column: Gavin Evans Back in the day, when Gavin and I were young activists trying to change the world, the doorbell rang at our Observatory student house. I opened it to see a tall and handsome man in the silky purple shirt and dog collar of an Anglican Bishop. “You must be Tony,” said Bishop Bruce Evans. “I hope you’re going to make a mensch out of my son.” I was a little gobsmacked to hear +Bruce, as I came to know him, tossing out yiddish bon mots. But as his menschedik son relates here, many are the pathways of the lord, and all that….
The fundamentalist century
By Gavin Evans
So, Christmas and Hannukah have rolled past again, following in the wake of Eid and Diwali. Lots of celebrations all around and, perhaps, time to put a bit of religion back into the mix.
It is fitting to start with the obvious point that these festivals and commemorations are not all they seem. Take Christmas: the date of December 25 was chosen by the Romans sometime after 350 AD, probably to coincide with a pagan festival (and certainly not the birth date of the historical Jesus) – one of the many ways the Romans managed to wed Christianity with pre-existing Pagan traditions and beliefs. But Christmas only became prominent after Charlemagne was crowned on December 25, 800, and it took more than another millennium before the traditions of trees, and presents crept in (Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens did their bit) – and a bit longer before the North Pole Santa arrived. In other words, its connections with Christianity are tenuous, to say the least. It has become, essentially, a secular celebration – which is one of the reasons why I am happy to embrace its charms.
But this was not the way I grew up. I was raised on fundamentalism, and Christmas certainly wasn’t exempt. We were told the point wasn’t the actual date but rather that this was celebration of the birth of Jesus and that we give presents to remember that God gave his son for our salvation (I later discovered that other cultures – Spanish, for example – give their presents later as a celebration of the gifts given by the Three Wise Men).
Anyway, this stuff was as integral to my childhood as family meals: chapter-and-verse Protestantism complete with ‘born-again conversion’ (aged 8), tongues-sprouting ‘baptism in the spirit’ (aged 13), the promise of everlasting life with our Lord (heaven) and the perpetual fear of everlasting separation from his love (hell). Add to this the fact that my father, who went on to become an Anglican Bishop, was Jewish, and believed he was part of the God’s chosen people and that the creation of the state of Israel was the fulfilment of Biblical philosophy, and you might get the sense of why our upbringing was not entirely normal, if normality is measured by the going rate. So when I made my break, aged 17, it needed to be decisive, after which I drifted from open-ended agnosticism into soft atheism. But I have to say, it feels like much of the world is moving in the opposite direction.
The rise of fundamentalism
Religious fundamentalism is on the rise: you can see it in the variants of radical Sunni Islam feeding off the detritus of US foreign policy and of Zionist expansionism, taking hold of young hearts from the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa via Pakistan through Afghanistan, into the West and back to the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia and beyond. Up against it comes Shiite Islamism, given a foothold through the 1979 Iranian revolution and now spreading via Iraq while tapping into other conflicts in the Middle East, where both forms elbow out secular Arab nationalism to do battle with a revivalist form of Jewish radicalism, married to rightwing Zionism, with its most significant echo in the United States. There it thrives alongside an assertive Catholic backlash and the spread of literalist Pentecostal Protestantism, which is also on the march throughout Latin America, while making fresh inroads into China, Russia and Africa. Sometimes forgotten in all this Abrahamic ferment, is the growth of Hindu radicalism in India – part of the problem in Kashmir and not exactly helpful in easing tensions with Pakistan (and, as with other fundamentalist forms, it is strongly motivated by turning back advances made by Indian women).
I don’t want to paint these fundamentalisms with the same brush, to view them as no more than variants of the same doomed anti-modernist death rattle, but there are common elements. Look at millenarian movements throughout history and a common factor leaps out: their emergence from periods of social disruption and from challenge by rival fundamentalist energy. Part of their appeal comes from the certainty they offer in an uncertain world – immutable values, a return to godly ways, strict demands on lifestyle, the promise of everlasting life and everlasting punishment for the unfaithful. And yet, despite their claims, today’s variants are contemporary movements – of our time rather than of ancient times.
The first sparks that gave rise to contemporary Sunni Islamism are sometimes attributed to the writings of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual force behind the Egyptian Islamic Brotherhood whose commentaries on the Qu’ran and advocacy of Jihad and of the creation of world-wide Islamic Umma were a powerful influence on several variants of Islamism, including al-Qaeda. Qutb’s hatred of Western ways, and most particularly of the ways of Western women, was partly inspired by his spell in Greely, Colorado from 1948-1950 – hardly a liberated time or place, but deeply shocking for a virgin who complained about the “animal-like” mixing of the sexes – even in churches.
But this form of Sunni Islamism needed fertile territory to flourish, which was inadvertently fostered by the relationship between corrupt Saudi rulers and the deeply conservative Wahabi religious establishment, allowing them to control education, religious life and social life. Even today, this American ally is patrolled, literally, by religious police who rigidly enforce Sharia law. Women are banned from voting, driving, swimming in public and so on. But this was never enough. Some younger men, not least wealthy ones like Osama Bin Laden, wanted more. For a while, their urges were channelled in Afghanistan because fighting the Russians suited everyone. They had already made their mark by spreading their version of Sunni Islam via the Pakistani Madrassas to Afghanistan (with considerable help from Pakistan’s intelligence services). Once the Russians departed, they turned their eyes to the Americans and over the past decade the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russian atrocities in Chechnya and, in particular, US backing for Israel against the Palestinians, have helped stoke the fire of this variant of radical Islam, providing local, regional and international causes to rally behind.
Certainly, there are major differences between variants of Islamism and I don’t want to fall into the Martin Amis trap of conflating them all into a single, demonised bloc (Amis even manages to put Shiite and Sunni radicals in the same pot, which is a bit like conflating Martin Luther with the Pope). For example, I see Hamas and Hizballah as essentially nationalistic political movements with a strong religious overtone (and they are vehement political opponents of al-Qaeda). In each region or area, the growth of Islamic-inspired political groups owes a great deal to local conditions. Nevertheless, there are common factors, worthy of generalisation. Its appeal is particularly strong to those who felt left behind or left out by the sweep of modernity or frustrated by powerlessness or fearful or resentful of its consequences.
In some parts of the world, a significant part of the motivation seems to be an antipathy to the enhanced position of women. Some of the most striking images I’ve seen are those of young, unemployed Indonesian Muslim men cheering when professional women were whipped for not being sufficiently covered up. Accounts of women in Taliban Afghanistan point to an obsession by the young men (who emerged as religious police) about countering advances in women’s lives introduced during the Soviet era: not just wearing of Burkhas (as if to deny not female sexuality), but even the education of girls.
Opinion surveys of young Muslims in the West consistently point to a sense of alienation from the prevailing motion of society – part of it but also apart from it. For these people, Islamism with its global vision, its stateless perspective of the Umma, and its radical vision of challenge, change and permanent struggle, offers something of the surety, definition and sense of purpose that Marxism offered earlier generations, but the parallel shouldn’t be taken too far. First, this is a religion; Marxism was merely quasi-religious in its tone. Second, the al-Qaeda variant of this particular religious movement claims to be committed to the destruction of modernity, holding up the horror of the Taliban Afghanistan as a success. It carries within its soul a profound antagonism to the liberation of women, and the young converts in Western cities are not immune to this particular appeal. The emergence of significant numbers of Burkha and Niqab-wearing women in Western cities surely owes something to this impetus.
Evangelical Christian fundamentalism
In one sense you could trace the origins of contemporary evangelical Christian radicalism to Luther and the rise of Protestantism but its more recent currents are drawn from 19th century revivalism and, more specifically, the rise of Pentecostalism in the southern American states at the turn of the 20th century. In addition to their Protestant Biblical fundamentalism with its literal heaven and literal hell, the Pentecostals were big on the ‘Power of the Holy Spirit’ (expressed through the ‘gifts of the spirit’ – tongues, interpretation, healing, exorcism and so on) and on interpretations of the book of Revelation emphasising the ‘Second Coming’.
But it was only in the 1960s that it burst its southern American banks and began outpacing all other Christian movements – both through its own denominations (the Assemblies of God, free Pentecostal churches and others which, together, now have over 150 million adherents) and through inroads into the Anglican and Catholic churches where the ‘charismatic movement’ took off in the early 1970s. Even in Britain, the most irreligious of all countries, evangelicals are on the rise – putting the squeeze on liberals and Anglo Catholics in the Church of England – while house churches and faith centres spread beyond the Anglican embrace. It became the most powerful force within late 20th century Christianity and few countries outside the Islamic world were spared. By the late 1980s it was also starting to become an important political force in the United States, and within a decade became the centre-point of Carl Rove’s strategy for creating a new, rightwing Republic coalition.
So what is the motive force behind this expansion? Again, it is hard to escape the view that the unsettled state of post-industrial capitalism has something to do with it: the breakdown in communities and community, the sense of relative decline, and disquiet about changes in gender relations, although here the starting point is different to that of Islamism. The mid-century dancehalls that so upset Qutb, with their immutable roles for boys and girls, are points of return rather than departure for today’s Pentecostals, who tell their women to make an effort to look beautiful and feminine for their husbands and prefer homemakers to career women, and demand that the man is master of the house and that part of the woman’s role is to honour and obey (and, of course, that the rod should not be spared on the children).
Religious Zionist fundamentalism
I don’t want to draw too direct a parallel with the rise of new variants of Jewish radicalism, because unlike Islam or Christianity, Judaism has long ceased being a proselytising religion (although it certainly did have a proselytising element for its first few thousand years). I am therefore not talking about the intriguing growth of some branches of Hasidic Judaism (not least the Lubavitch in New York and beyond).
Instead, what I am referring to is the shift towards greater religiosity among the heirs of Vladimir Jabotinsky: the Zionist right – a religiosity that is deeply political (as is Islamism and Christian fundamentalism). When I hear West Bank Settler leaders saying that every Jew knows in his heart that this land of Judea and Sumaria as well as Israel is theirs and that those who pretend otherwise are trying to silence the voice of God within them, it is eerily reminiscent of the way ‘backsliders’ were regarded in my evangelical upbringing. Here the idea is that Jewish ‘blood’ comes with a God-given spiritual knowledge of Jewish destiny through control of particular pieces of land – so land, blood and God’s spirit inextricably bound together. Recent genetic research suggesting a common ancestry of Middle Eastern Jews and Palestinians, going back 4000 years to their mythical common ancestor, Abraham, should be deeply unsettling to those holding this view, as should evidence produced by the likes of Schlomo Sand that the blood descendents of the Biblical Jews include today’s Palestinians, but science and fundamentalism seldom cross paths.
It is in this terrain – Israel and Palestine – where the millenarian obsessions of radical variants of the three Abrahamic religions coincide. For one thing, radical Christians, Jews and Shia Muslims are all big on prophetic arrivals or returns. For some Jews it is the arrival of the anointed one, the Messiah, who will gather the Jews back to the land of Israel, heralding a messianic age. For Shia fundamentalists it is the second coming of the ‘saviour Imam’ Mehdi, the 12th grandson of Muhammad, who will return to rule before Judgement day. For many evangelical Christians it is the second coming of the Jesus, an event seen within the context of an apocalyptic version of the final days – the Tribulation (when the Anti-Christ rules), the Battle of Armageddon (which takes place in Israel), the Rapture (where all the Christians ascend into heaven), Judgement Day and the end of the earth. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that their competing Apocalyptic visions become self-fulfilling prophesies.
Old Testament literalism
Another striking similarity between the religious-political fundamentalists of all three Abrahamic religions is their scriptural literalism. Speak in any depth to a religious Zionist radical and the argument will soon reach the point of the promises made by ‘G-d’ about the Land of Israel in the Tanakh, which is viewed as an immutable historical record – a view shared by Islamists and Christian evangelicals.
For anyone outside the religious realm, the idea of a collection of writings thousands of years old being passed off as an accurate historical document would seem absurd, but that was certainly the view I was raised with. It was only in 1985 – seven years after abandoning Christianity – that this was challenged. I was sitting in a detention cell in Johannesburg Prison when through a gap in the floor, a common law prisoner passed me a book on Biblical archaeology, written by a Christian with more than a passing a regard for truth. The only other book I had was the Bible and so I read both, and was surprised to find that a great deal of what I’d taken as historical record was nothing of the sort (for example the exodus from Egypt took over 100 years, and involved nothing like the numbers suggested in the Bible.
I followed this with further research and discovered there was no evidence for the existence of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Joseph, and very little of Moses (many non-religious archaeologists believe he was a mythical character, since no physical evidence like pottery shards or stone tablets have been found relating to him). Even the existence of King David is restricted to one, much-disputed non-Biblical inscription (the Biblical account of his life appears to have been boosted and changed over time, most notably by the priests under Judean King Josiah two hundred years after his supposed death) and there is also scant evidence of Solomon. In addition, the five Mosaic books were written by at least four authors between the seventh and fifth centuries BC (hundreds of years after the time of the Biblical Moses) and there was a great deal of chopping and changing in the books of the Old Testament, with new bits added, reflecting shifts in power, before the version we know today was more or less settled.
New Testament literalism
I went on to re-examine the New Testament and was even more surprised. I’d been raised with the idea that the Gospels were written by Jesus’ disciples shortly after his death. In fact, none of the Gospels was written by men who knew Jesus. The first (attributed to ‘Mark’ in the second century) was written at least 30 years after Jesus’ death and the others drew heavily from it – John’s Gospel may have been completed as late as 160 AD. I then discovered that six of the 13 the epistles of Paul were only posthumously attributed to Paul and that he probably had nothing to do with them – and also that bits were subsequently added to his epistles, including some of their most misogynistic directives.
It was only well into the fourth century, when the church was already deeply Romanised, that the books of the New Testament were more or less settled. Until then, there had been several competing Gospels (including the Gnostic Gospels of Mary – probably written in the early second century and proposing Mary rather than Peter as Jesus’ favourite disciple – and others such as Thomas, Philip and Judas) and competing views of the significance of Jesus among the Christian groups, not all regarding him as divine. It was only after the assembly of bishops in the Nicene Council in 325 ad, under the Emperor Constantine, that consensus was imposed. From then-on competing versions of the Christian story were suppressed, as were competing religions (including Greek and Roman Pantheism, aspects of which were absorbed into Christian practice – the veneration of the Virgin Mary as a kind of female deity, the promotion of Saints as demi-gods and pagan festivals like Christmas). The survival of the church owed a great deal to the patronage of Roman emperor whose conversion was probably one of political convenience rather than faith, who accepted the minority Arian Christian view that Jesus was a man and not part of God and who by today’s standards was a mass murder (a year after the Nicene Council he had his son and second wife executed).
I was also intrigued to find interpretations of Biblical books completely at odds with those I had previously received – not least on the Book of Revelation. I was raised on the idea that the writer’s apocalyptic visions referred to the imminent End of Times. In those days (the early 1970s) the Soviet Union figured strongly (as land of Magog from where the anti-Christ, Gog would emerge), although with its decline subsequent candidates emerged, including Europe and the United Nations. Anyway, revisiting this book, I found competing interpretations including those linking the prophesies to events in the first century, with the Emperor Nero as the anti-Christ. I also found a great deal of debate among early Christians as to whether Revelation should be part of the Biblical canon. Even Luther initially considered Revelation to be “neither apostolic nor prophetic” and stated that “Christ is neither taught nor known in it”.
Recent scholarship has also thrown into doubt the Islamic view that the Qu’ran was the work Muhammad (via Allah). Strong evidence has emerged to suggest it was compiled, and possibly written, after Muhammad’s death in 632 AD, and that much of it was drawn from pre-existing religious texts (including ancient heathen fables and myths and borrowings from apocryphal and Syriac Christian writings and also the Talmud and apocryphal Jewish writings, and possibly Zoroastrianism). Incidentally, he Jewish influence is hardly surprising because Islam emerged at a time of an anti-Christian alliance between Jews and Arabs. Additional evidence comes from the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana’a in Yemen where early fragments of the Qu’ran were discovered, diverging from the current version.
In fact, it emerges that we know very little about the life of Muhammad because it would seem that everything in the Hadith (his utterances on Islamic behaviour) is based on hearsay, written down well over a century later. You might think this would be disturbing to those believing that the Hadith reflected the actual words of Muhammad and that the Qu’ran was dictated to Muhammad in a cave by the Archangel Gabriel in God’s language, Arabic, but fundamentalists do not deal in debate. It is enough for them to point out that some of these ideas have been hijacked by Christians – proof enough of a Crusader agenda.
Which brings me to another point – about the futile crusade of a new breed of atheist. Personally, I prefer the approach taken by that giant of evolutionary biology, Stephen J. Gould, who argued that religion and science occupy “non-overlapping magisteria”. But this is not the approach taken by the neo-atheists responding with such vigour to the spread of religious fundamentalism. To take some recent examples, there’s Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, a double-blast from Sam Harris – The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, but the one I will to refer to specifically is the daddy of the lot, Richard Dawkins’ best-seller, The God Delusion.
I don’t dispute the conclusions reached by Dawkins about the unlikelihood of the existence of a divine creator; merely to say I doubt he has persuaded any true believer to abandon God – not least because he doesn’t understand the religious mindset. Perhaps these weren’t things he encountered when getting his second class BA in zoology, or perhaps his logic is blurred by passion, but still, he ends up presenting a curiously superficial case. For example, he argues that if God existed he would need to have evolved, which, of course, is impossible because every effect must have a cause, and so on. The sheer stupidity of this argument is astounding: quite obviously, if you have faith in a divine, omnipresent, omniscient creator you do not consider this creator an evolved creation.
This relates to another flaw in the approach by of the most vocal contemporary atheists – their tendency to conflate evidence for evolution with evidence against creation. The Christians I grew up with – Biblical literalists all – were supporters of evolutionary theory. They saw it as God’s way of creating our world, and the six day creation of the Bible presented no problem, because, for them, the word ‘day’ was simply a translation of ‘period of time’, which could be a billion years. I mention this because it remains the majority position within Christianity. Creationism (viewed as a six-day wonder, 6 000 years ago) remains a minority taste. More of a challenge is to ask where the first strand of the building block of evolution, DNA, came from. Creation, say the theists. Chance, say the atheists: a mute point – a question of faith. This quandary goes all the way to the Big Bang. What preceded it? Stupid question, says science, because without space there can be no time. But it is in this nothingness, that this faith in a force that can create something out of nothing is so hard to dispel through rational argument. Matter cannot be created or destroyed; only changed from one form to another, says science. To which the religious mind says, yes, unless you are God.
Against this, Dawkins cites one of Bertrand Russell’s weaker arguments: the ‘celestial teapot’. It goes like this: if I said a celestial teapot was orbiting Mars but you couldn’t see it, nobody would be able to disprove me, “but if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.” Sounds reasonable until you consider that faith in God is nothing like belief in a celestial teapot – to most people the former seems more reasonable (which is why I have yet to meet a teapot-worshipper). In other words, Dawkins has made an elementary logical error – drawing an analogy between things that don’t belong together. What it suggests is a failure to understand why people believe in the first place.
Which is surprising, considering Dawkins’ own teenage spell of religious ecstasy. As he once put it: “At the age of about 13 when I was being confirmed, I did have a fairly active fantasy life about a relationship with God, and I used to pray and I used to have fantasies about creeping down to the chapel in the middle of the night, and having a sort of blinding vision and things.” Today, his view of the religious impulse coincides neatly with that of the born-again, Bible-based Christians I grew up with. They used to talk of a ‘God-centred gene’ in all of us – that we are all born with this longing for communion with our Lord. As a genetic fundamentalist, who reduces the cultural terrain to the odd notion of gene-mimicking ‘memes’, Dawkins rejects cultural explanations for religion and concludes that religion evolved through natural selection as a by-product of other needs. It boils down to this: we evolve to believe what we’re told by our elders because our elders are usually right, and those who believe what they’re told benefit from their experience. It sounds feasible until you ask why it was that religion, rather than something else, was passed on by elders.
Dawkins is oblivious to evidence against the notion (shared by Christian fundamentalists) that the religious impulse is universal. I could point to contrary examples in the advanced industrial world (40 percent of British people do not believe in god), but, more interesting, are the Piraha people of the Brazilian Amazon, who have no concept of god, the afterlife or the spiritual realm – and don’t even have the capacity for this in their language. What this suggests is two things: first, that the impulse towards spiritual belief is contingent rather than inevitable; second, that if fulfils a powerful cultural role and therefore is very widespread.
What could be the reasons for this? I would suggest the answer is found in the idea put forward by Gould of non-adaptive evolutionary side consequences (‘spandrels’). Evolution equipped us with large, imaginative, empathetic, creative, questioning brains that needed answers to questions ranging from ‘why are we here?’ to ‘what’s that big fiery ball in the sky?’ to ‘what happens to us when we die?’ The answers provided relate to the form and development of society, which is why beliefs shift from animism to pantheism to monotheism. Once formulated, these systems develop lives of their own while also changing according to the climate of the times. One reason is that human beings are social creatures, and religious belief systems play important roles within the fabric of societies – securing discipline, control and complicity and providing hope, purpose and direction, which is why they are perpetuated.
The new breed of militant atheist wants to create a world free from religious superstition, and they are right to point to the misery religion has caused. To take Christianity’s contribution, we could move from the Crusades, the Conquistadors and the Spanish Inquisition, step over its complicity in slavery, dictatorship, genocide and apartheid, and round off with more recent contributions to barbarity like, say, the Lord’s Army in Uganda. But then it is also worth mentioning that most of the charity work and voluntary community work throughout the world, and most of the money donated to charity, comes from religious people. And if we are to take the credit and debit accounting approach, it would be fair to mention history’s only example of a system where atheism was a founding principle – Soviet and Sino socialism – which did not seem to contribute to making people any happier with their lot – one reason why the churches (and congregations) are back with a vengeance in each of those countries.
But even if we could forgo compulsion and persuade everyone that their faith is a load of tosh, I’m not convinced the result would be a better world. Is Britain a happier place today than when 80 percent of its people believed in God? Are atheists more fulfilled than believers? Are they kinder, more altruistic people? The best we could say is, well, sometimes. But at other times the vacuum left by loss of faith is filled by nihilism. When I see the yobs from down the road coming down our street on a steaming attack, assaulting everyone in their path, just for the hell of it, I can’t help thinking that a bit of god wouldn’t be such a bad idea – and that perhaps the opiate of the people is not such a terrible thing after all.
A fundamentalist century
Unless, that is, it’s the form of opiate that turns people into addicts who will do anything to satisfy the urge. And I’m afraid that’s precisely the kind of religion we are seeing more of today, and which we’ll see far more of in future because there is sound reason to fear that climate change will exacerbate these tensions and encourage the spread of religious fundamentalism in ways we haven’t seen before. If the prognoses of climate scientists proves to be correct, then we’ll see famine, drought and starvation at unprecedented levels along with huge-scale human migration – from south to north, and, more specifically, away from equatorial and sub-tropical regions towards cooler climates. Europe may do the brunt of the absorption but in other parts of the world the impact may be even more profound. One of these will be the Middle East. Faced with drought, water shortages and the decline in agriculture, the region will not be able to sustain its current population, which means we can expect a Diaspora of Arabs and Jews, while those who remain will be compelled to fight over the scraps – village tap politics on a grander scale than currently seen in Darfur.
It is one of the sadder conundrums of the modern world that a time when extraordinary advances in science, technology and most of all collective economic and political will are needed to prevent climate change from threatening us with the global equivalent of meltdown, is also a time of rapidly spreading superstitions which aim to take us back to a world that never existed. So then, Happy Holidays.