In today’s Telegraph Charles Moore has an article entitled “A Society that Persecutes Christ is heading for terrible trouble.” It is hard to imagine a thought more banal, but the article that follows measures up pretty well. First of all, it is impossible to persecute Christ. The man believed, by Christians, to have been the Christ, or Jewish Messiah, is dead, killed by the Romans, if the story be true, nearly 2000 years ago, and while he has many followers today, they are persecuted, in the main, only where Islam rules, so Moore’s quote from Ibn Khaldun, which he pairs with one from Margaret Thatcher, is more than a bit at odds with his title.
However, let’s take the quotes to start with. First, Margaret Thatcher:
Not for 2,000 years has it been possible for society to exclude or eliminate Christ from its social or political life without a terrible social or political consequence.
This is, Moore says, the opening sentence of Thatcher’s book Christianity and Conservatism, which I have not had the misfortune to read. The second quotation comes from Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century Muslim historian and philosopher of history:
Religion taught by a prophet or by a preacher of the truth is the only foundation on which to build a great and powerful empire.
– a thought which is immediately contadicted by many great empires and civilisations, not least the Roman Empire, which does not find its foundation in a prophet or preacher of the truth, supposing that any prophet or preacher has done so, but at least partly in a syncretistic willingness to assimilate conquered gods into its pantheon. But nevertheless it is well to take note of this quotation from Ibn Khaldun, since it affirms what so many people seem at pains to conceal, that Islam was an imperial power, imposing its culture and thought, however puerile and violent, on many a people whose culures, religions, and identities were systematically destroyed by Muslim violence and colonisation. This is a continuing trend, demonstrated by the few Western idiots who have joined the ranks of Islamic imperialists – whose empire and civilisation shone largely with the borrowed light of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and others, and continually regressed to the state of Arabian brigandage, violence and oppression — by giving themselves Arabic names, and bowing submissively towards Mecca and Arabia five times a day.
And while Moore is rhapsodising about the sage of Tunis, it is relevant to point out that the latest news out of Tunis, announces the conviction, in absentia (at least of one of the men), of two men, for blasphemy, for drawing caricatures of the prophet:
They were sentenced, one of them in absentia, to seven years in prison, for transgressing morality, defamation and disrupting public order.
Doubtless heeding Ibn Khaldun’s declaration that great empires are built only on the foundation of a prophet or preacher of the truth. So much for the Tunisian revolution, and all the acts of civil resistance to autocratic rule, fired, it seems, by the passionate self-immolation of a street vendor — whose sacrificial smoke rose pointlessly into the heavens. Like Egypt, all the passion for freedom seems to have ended in the replacement of personal tyranny with religous tyranny. Yet, no doubt, as Moore says, great civilisations are built on foundations such as these.
The trouble with Moore is that he actually seems to think that he has said something profound. A few days ago he was rhapsodising about the truth of religion — in opposition to Alain de Botton who considers the notion of religious truth boring, though the forms of religion as something worth borrowing from and using in the new godless state of tomorrow. In response to de Botton Moore claims that “Religion’s usefulness derives from its truth.” The troubling thing here is that he makes no effort whatsoever to show that any of the relevant religious beliefs are true.
Of course, this is not new with Moore. It is simply widely assumed that religious beliefs are true. For example, there is a series of “blogs” as he calls them, by Mark Mann, over a Biologos, attempting to show that science really belongs to the church, using the old trope of the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature, in order to make his point. In a six part series, “Let’s not surrender science to the secular world,” Mann argues (or pontificates) about the relation of religion and science, purporting to show that “science is a tool given to us by God to help us understand His creation,” and expressing his desire ”to reclaim science as a distinctly Christian enterprise.” Not only does he want to make this claim, but he goes on to claim that fundamentalist Christians are really gnostic heretics, and that the truth is found only by accepting the traditional faith of the church, which (though he does not say this) is based on the church’s interpretation of scripture, and not on a “plain reading” of the text, as fundamentalist Christians claim it is.
For some reason Mann thinks that the early church spoke in terms of the “Book of Nature,” though, to my knowledge, this is a much later development. But religious ideologues have never let facts stand in their way. He suggests that we read the opening chapters of Genesis, for example, in an analogical or metaphorical way, even suggesting that they are obviously written figuratively, and were never meant to be taken literally. Indeed, he goes on, in a lengthy section of his series, to explain why biblical fundamentalism should be called a form of the gnostic heresy. But before we come to that, it is important to note how the natural world is conceived of as a “book” through which God speaks to us. Mann himself wants to change this familiar religious move in the contest between science and religion by eschewing the word ‘nature’, and instead calling it the “Book of Creation.” But this really begs the question whether, in fact, it is possible to see the natural world as in some sense something through which a go might speak to us. And he further begs the point by thinking of nature, as secularly understood, as “just some dead, inert, secular stuff.” It’s not quite clear what he means by this. How can stuff be secular? Well, it is secular by not being expressive of the divine nature, for he immediately goes on to say that
The Word of God woven into the very fabric of the universe must be seen and heard through the eyes and ears of faith in the son of God as one who became fully human … This is a pivotal point that is often overlooked when thinking about the ways in which God speaks to us.
So the whole theory of nature as the Book of Creation is dependent on the Christian belief that God was incarnate in Jesus, for as Mann says:
If God is capable of speaking His own way, truth, and life into the world through human flesh, god is certainly capable of speaking through the rest of creation as well!
Well, no doubt, but in what sense — and this is a vital point — is the doctrine of the incarnation held to be true in a way in which other religious beliefs, which do not share belief in the incarnation, are not true?
If Mann’s attempt to integrate Christianity and science depends upon the truth of the Christian revelation, then he must prove the truth of the Christian revelation in ways that other religious beliefs cannot be proved. Science depends upon empirical confirmation. This does not mean that at its farthest reaches, as in particle physics, scientific theorising does not reach out into theories which are not confirmed. That is the nature of science: always taking one step further into theory (or hypothesis), which, in turn, requires empirical confirmation or disconfirmation. There was doubtless a time when Darwin’s theory was just that, still in the realm of theory and in need of confirmation. Indeed, as Darwin himself was fully aware, athough the evidence that he presents in the Origin was very powerful, the Origin itself was in the nature of an experimental project, which was only fully confirmed much later, when the knowledge of how genetic features were passed on to the next generation, and how variations were introduced, were more fully understood.
But where is Mann’s experimental project? He wants simply to lay claim to science without showing that the two supposed “books” are related in any way. He simply takes the truth of orthodox Christianity for granted, as though the “truths” of Christian faith, as delivered by a series of church councils presided over by the Emperor, are in some sense definitive truth for Christians. He pins a great deal of his argument on the idea that Gnosticism was a Christian heresy, and that we can trace the truths of Christianity by accepting the decisions of the early church councils. But decisions by church councils, which were held in order to devise a consistent understanding of Christianity which could provide the foundations of a great empire, are scarcely reliable ways of arriving at the truth. The Christian faith was constructed by committees of church leaders who in turn were often influenced by fear, either of imperial authority, or bands of marauding monks. To suppose that the deliverances of these councils — of what Mann himself calls “government sanctioned orthodoxy”! — could in any sense be considered the truth about things, as Mann seems to assume, is simply ludicrous. Perhaps Gnosticism did not measure up to the faith as so determined, but this does not put Gnosticism, or any other religious belief, however farfetched, forever outside of the scope of believability or truth, for all religious beliefs and claims are on all fours here. None of them has any particular claim to be taken as true, in the absence of any evidence that they are.
So when Moore, or Mann, speak so casually about religious truth, as either the only possible foundation of empires, or as somehow closely intertwined with scientific truth, they are speaking of something to which they are not entitled, namely, truth claims pertaining to their particular religious beliefs. The incarnation of Jesus, or the prophetic claims of Mohammed, notwithstanding the brittle joy of Easter which will be celebrated by millions tomorrow for reasons which will escape practically all of them, have no bona fides which could convince an impartial examiner as to their truth or reliability. To suppose that either Christians or Muslims can make a claim to the discoveries of science, based on the supposed truth of their religious convictions, is so ludicrous that, if it were not made so ardently by apparently serious people, would be hugely laughable if it were not so pathetic.
Let’s turn from these more general criticisms to the specific points that Mann wants to make about fundamentalism and Gnosticism. The fundamentalists are, he suggests, gnostics, not because they accept any of the doctrines of the ancient gnostics: their belief in evil creators, and sparks of the divine trapped in flesh, and their liberation through knowledge; but because they hold the world to be overcome by sin, and human life to be, as both Augustine and Calvin believed, a massa damnata, only escapable by belief and faithfulness. Ah, but, Mann would add, these modern fundamentalists believe in at least fundamental aspects of gnosticism, and that is enough, if not to condemn them — Mann is careful not to use the category of heretic in its traditional way — at least to show their beliefs to be contrary to orthodox Christianity. The aspects of gnosticism that fundamentalists adhere to, according to Mann, are two: (i) they believe they have special knowledge granted by “certain privileged interpretations of Scripture, (which has been vouchsafed to them by God himself?), and (ii) any other claims to knowledge are rejected as “ultimately untrustworthy because it has been tainted by ‘evil minds of the material world’.” He goes on to say that
Science, because it is practiced by those who are “trapped within a physical body within this world of materiality, ignorance and evil” is properly an enterprise of the secular world of unbelievers and their petty, sinful ways.
Now, while it is true that there are elements of this in contemporary fundamentalism, it is also true that fundamentalism is a largely modern phenomenon, deeply indebted to science, as James Barr shows in his book Fundamentalism. Nor is the idea of fallen reason a peculiarly Gnostic idea. It is not only deeply embedded in Protestant theology, but it is clearly expressed by the Roman Catholic Church, in its belief that the Magisterium is superior to reason.
The problem with Mann (as well as Moore), as I have already suggested, is that, despite the fact that they affirm the truth of religious beliefs, they, no more than any other religious believer, make no effort to demonstrate that their religious beliefs are true. The attempt by Mann to assimilate Christian religious beliefs, or God speaking through sacred text, to scientific discoveries, simply stumbles at the first post. For there is no basis for the repeated claim that religious beliefs are either revealed or true, and repeating the claim, though it may convince believers, does not amount to demonstrtion. Indeed, Mann gives us sufficient reason to doubt the truth of Christian beliefs. No one seems to notice the oddity of claiming that scriptures contain truths revealed to us by God, truths which we could not otherwise know. In a surprising statement in a book about Jewish-Christian relations, the former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, in his book about the aftermath of the Holocaust, After the Evil, says:
It is dangerous to talk of history being a continuing source of revelation, if new revelation is meant. However, there can be no objection to thinking of history as drawing out the implications which lie latent in the New Testament. 
This is very peculiar. Why is it dangerous to talk in this way? My own surmise is that the assumption that new revelation is available cannot be checked. New revelation would be intrinsically unruly. But is this not already the case with hermeneutics? After all, if we take history as drawing out latent implications, what criteria can be used to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate implications?
Mann goes out of his way to discuss the very complex and contested subject of biblical hermeneutics, and the problems this causes for understanding the truths supposedly conveyed by scripture. He must do this, because he must show that modern fundamentalists’ use of the Bible is illegitimate. But how can he do this? The Bible, as he says, taken as a source of revealed knowledge (itself a problematic concept), is ”complex and revealed within a variety of social and historical contexts,” but he does not seem to worry that scriptural revelation is always thought of as based on documents from the past, where such feats of interpretation are necessary in order to discern the truths God intends to convey to us now, which may be very different from those he intended to convey when the scriptures were originally written down. Whether the stories are to be taken literally or figuratively is not a part of the revelation, and it is impossible now to determine who is right. Mann makes claims that he simply cannot support, in order, in the context of a largely scientific world view, to permit the Bible to retain some credibility. But the scientific world view, he suggests, already belongs within the world view shaped by the Bible, which is why he thinks it appropriate to speak of reclaiming science as a Christian enterprise. But there is no way that he can brush the Bible off and produce an unproblematic hermeneutic of the Bible in order to show some consistency between the Bible and science. If the scientific world view is being used as a hermeneutic guide, simply on the basis of the claim that there is no inconsistency or separation between religion and science, this is simply an ex post facto rationalisation, based on his attempt to claim that Bible and science are already part of the same contiuum of knowledge. But Mann must show that the Bible is really true, and that it contains revealed truths that could not be known otherwise, and this he cannot do. The religious claim to truth is empty, and the desire to build empire on the basis of this vacuity, is wrong on two counts. In the present state of the world, building empires should be the last of our thoughts, and, in any event, there is no truth in religion, however much religious believers refer to aesthetic considerations or consolations or past civilisational triumphs in order to put the case for religion.