UK Politics

Traditionalists and Liberals

Religions die in a number of ways. First, they can be put to the sword and flame: the fate of Zorastrianism at Alexander the Great’s hands. Second, they can go underground, as Marranos Jews did during the Inquisition (and, some might say, Zoroastrians did in Persia), until the hidden faith mutates in the minds of the forgetting generations into something only half understood. Third, in a liberal society, the children of the religious just find that they have better things to do with their time.

In the liberal societies of Europe at least, dissipation in this final manner is what, generally speaking, is happening to most religions. There are exceptions, of course. Religious revivals may occur from time to time, particularly when the relatively impious find that their cultural identity under attack. Individuals may fall in with a religious group, and find that faith becomes central to their lives again, or for the first time. But, bar some catastrophic social event, religious people are likely to find that they are increasingly “bowling alone“. In the 2001 Survey, for example, almost a quarter of 16-34 year olds said they had no religion, compared with only 5% of people aged over 65. For many of those, religion will play a background role in their lives, only.

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Traditionalists tend to claim that only a return to the fundamentals of the faith will save the religion. By this, they mean two things: first, that liberal versions of their religion are apostasy, and therefore to be discounted as worse than no faith at all, and second, that half hearted jews, christians and muslims are less likely to transmit their faith to their children. And so, the central project of religious traditionalists has been to save their religions and ensure their survival.

They have undoubtedly had some success. Many people do appear to have a bit of a god-shaped hole which needs to be filled by something. If people will buy into an imagined and reinvented Wicca and the cockamamy theories of “Dr” Gillian McKeith, then why not traditional worship?

To counter backsliding, traditionalists have a number of techniques at their disposal. They may have access to well funded and equally traditionally minded backers, as do traditionalist Muslims and Alpha Course Christians. Christians (and Jews) are relatively successful at running unchaotic state schools, and – scandalously – require parents to demonstrate their faith, sometimes for many years, by attending the local church, as a precondition to accessing the education services for which they have already paid with their taxes. Jews used to excommunicate their children for “marrying out”, although most have become unwilling to do so nowadays.

But the most useful weapon at the disposal of traditionalists is the anaemic nature of those versions of their religions which are, in effect, no more than the Guardian editorial page with a few songs thrown in. There’s no competition, really.

Political liberals fear traditionalists because they associate religious traditionalism with political reaction. Traditional religious establishments usually are visibly dominated by middle aged people whose attitudes are formed by by the attitudes of their own youth as well by a reactionary reading of their religious texts.

But traditionalists are not inevitably bigots. Many traditionalist reactionaries naturally concentrate on the socially conservative aspects of their religious texts, and claim to be reading – and living – the unmediated word of God, all texts are capable of multiple readings, whether the worshipper admits it or not.

However, the texts are not exclusively recitations of first or seventh century social attitudes. In any event, traditionalist liberals are just as able to claim that their faith is directly ordained by God, rather than simply a matter of human interpretation, as are reactionaries. That is effectively the position of Modern Orthodox Judaism.

It is modern, liberal traditionalists who will ultimately suceed. A seventh century Caliphate will never be recreated. Those who wait for the messianic age have to work out what to do until it comes: and the only answer is to live in the modern world.

It is ironic, is is not, that the liberal attitude owes so much to religion when it is so widely thought of as its enemy. The Enlightenment might be said to have begun with the key protestant apostasy which located God in individual conscience rather than in religious hierarchy. Many of our key moments of social progress have been associated with religious figures, from the response to the Peterloo massacre to the struggle to end segregation in the American South.

It is also ironic that, despite the dominance and visibility of reactionary traditionalists, liberal traditionalism is still thriving.

Here’s a breakdown of the vote in the US in 2004. 35% of weekly churchgoers voted for Kerry, as did 21% of white Evangelical Christians.

Traditionalists are, in short, not necessarily political reactionaries.

Liberal traditionalists have a hard time of it. Because they are traditionalists, they tend to be lumped in with reactionaries. Take this plea from a commentator on a thread earlier this week about the foul Christian Voice, which bullied a cancer charity into rejecting a donation with threats of a boycott:

I am a practicing evangelical Christian. — WAIT! Don’t throw me on the burning pyre yet! —

I have to say this sort of “activism” reeks and does nothing to advance the Gospel. In fact the actions of CV in this matter are patently anti-Gospel. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Liberal traditionalists are shot by both sides. On one hand, liberal traditionalists also suffer when the state cracks down on manifestions of traditionalism such as the hijab. On the other, they find themselves kept out of positions of religious power by reactionary traditionalists.

The state, which in any event should be faith-neutral, cannot impose a top down solution to the problem. In an article, which in my view is mistitled “Countering Islamic Traditionalists“, Eric links to an article in Timewhich recounts the failure in France and Belgium of the state sponsored Islamic organisations. Their predicament is well expressed by Dounia Bouzar, who has resigned from the French government sponsored French Council of the Muslim Faith:

Bouzar says she quit because the mostly foreign-born leaders are out of touch with the needs of the more than 2 million Muslims who, like herself, are French-born. “They bring with them the tradition of the Arab world that weaves the Koran and its teaching within history,” says Bouzar. “Rather than square Islam with our reality, they reinforce the terrible perception among non-Muslims that Islam is inherently irreconcilable with French society.”

So how can European Muslims create religious institutions that meet their needs? Bouzar and Adine suggest approaching the problem from the bottom up. Instead of allowing state-sanctioned bodies to dictate Islam from on high, they say, Muslims in Europe must themselves adapt the religion in response to the priorities, pressures and prejudices they encounter every day. But such a grassroots movement is difficult to get off the ground when the small group of traditionalists and fundamentalists is far more organized. New elections to the CFCM have been postponed to an unspecified date amid worries that government tinkering risks alienating Muslims and opening the door to an even more conservative board. “All you can do is urge people not to let others — either non-Muslim politicians or Islamic leaders rooted in antiquity — think in our place,” Bouzar argues. “We must be the experts who define who we are.”

What then can be done to enable the growth of liberal traditionalism?

My view is that the state should limit its role by the principle of belief-neutrality. It should treat religions as no different from any other belief. It should, however, play a role in dialoguing with liberal traditionalists by choice, and should avoid the futile and harmful practice of treating the most vocal of conservative reactionaries as the natural spokesmen of all faith communities.

At a non-state level, I think that the start of the process is to build links, and enter into dialogue, with liberal traditionalists.

On a personal level it is to recognise a duty of civility towards religious people. It is particularly important not to enter into the sort of vicious and indiscriminate denunciation of entire religious traditions which have become a feature of contemporary debate.