First of all, let’s listen to Tariq Ramadan speaking at the Cambridge Union. Then we will consider briefly what is wrong with it. He has carefully dotted the field with mines that will detonate on the unwary. (For the full debate go here.)
What Ramadan says seems to be reasonable and thoughtful, and that in itself should raise huge danger signals for us. When religious people sound reasonable there is almost always something else behind their words. That doesn’t, of course, mean that religious believers are never reasonable, but the nisus of religion is not towards reason so much as rationalisation, and therefore reason itself generally gets short shrift from believers. So, when Ramadan says that Dawkins can’t prove the non-existence of God, and makes that one of his most telling arguments, we should become suspicious, for that in itself is already a piece of sophistry.
For consider, as many atheists have said, that the same can be applied to fairies, the phoenix, the Loch Ness Monster, and various and sundry other possible entities upon which so many people have (as some still do) pondered in all seriousness. Indeed, it has recently come to light that Christian students are being taught that the Loch Ness Monster is evidence against evolution! (For this, and other odd things that the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum teaches children, see Jonny Scaramanga’s Guardian article here.) The problem with “You can’t prove that there are no gods, fairies, trolls, abominable snowmen, etc.” is simply that this kind of negative existential claim always leaves a corner of the universe unexplored where even invisible elephants dwell. And if that is the strongest argument that Ramadan has, then he has no argument at all.
But the problem with letting Ramadan get away with that argument is that it leaves the whole structure of his religion standing. And Ramadan’s religion is not the “let us sit down and reason together” kind of religion. Indeed, it has been argued, with some justice, I believe, that it is a pose in order to fool the unwary. This is the biggest mine that he lays in his presentation to the Cambridge Union, and it was partly this appearance of reason that, I suspect, lost the motion that “Religion has no place in the 21st century.” It was Douglas Murray’s closing speech that decided the issue, I believe, though we should not discount Ramadan’s appearance — and it was, I think, only appearance — of reason.
The motion, in itself, was, I think, subtly slanted towards the noes. After all, anyone who says that religion has no place in the 21st century would have to explain why, in the second decade of that century, religion seems more powerful than ever, and more intrusive in practically every aspect of human life and society. If the motion was defeated, it was due, I suggest (as I have just remarked), largely to Douglas Murray’s speech, which came at the very end, and made a very good case for religion as a place where serious questions can be raised about the nature and purpose of our lives, while making it part of the deal that religion would forever abandon its claim to intervene in public life, something that, on the face of it, seems very unlikely. This was “the deal,” Murray said, but is it very likely that Tariq Ramadan would accept the deal? Not at all, though, to hear him speak at the Cambridge Union, one might think that he had agreed that religion should be mainly a talk shop, and so not involved in the drive for cultural supremacy, a pathology which afflicts organised religion in practically all of its forms.
The reason that religion has no place in the 21st century, if that is true, has nothing at all to do with whether or not it speaks truth. If it makes sense to have religious organisations, as Lord Williams suggested, involved in doing peripheral acts of goodness, like helping child soldiers recapture a sense of identity and purpose, the question is how it can do this without the larger cultural aims that religions have. Ramadan objects, for example, to atheists trying to convert people to atheism, as though conversion to rationality were the same as conversion to a faith position which is based on texts hundreds or thousands of years old which are given the status of fountains of truth, before the question of their truth has been rationally considered, and the basis for making such claims have been assessed on historical or scientific grounds. This is palpably unreasonable, and yet Ramadan is quick to suggest that what the humanists in the debate were doing was proposing that “his truths” should simply disappear. But his truths have yet to be demonstrated, founded as they are on a tradition which sets aside a particular book whose sources practically every Muslim is unwilling to explore in a critical spirit. What truths? Which particular truths did he have in mind?
What’s wrong with Professor Ramadan is that he does not even address the primary issues in play, about truth, about the tendency towards violence in Islam, about religion’s inevitable involvement in public issues, and the attempt to govern others by religious prescriptions. Of course, he can always say that the violence is only conducted by a small minority of the billion or so Muslims in the world. But that has been true throughout history, and yet that violent few have caused despotism to reign wherever Islam is to be found in numbers significant enough to make their demands not only heard, but feared.
I’m quite prepared to accept religion on Douglas Murray’s terms, even though, it needs to be said, his remark about the involvement of the church in the anti-abortion and anti-assisted dying argument seems to break the deal before he has told us what the deal is. But my question will remain: How many religions are prepared to accept those terms? Listen to the deal.
I agree with the points that Murray is making here — indeed the whole of his speech is a masterpiece of reasoning and compromise — but I wonder if religions can accept the deal. (As I have suggested, and as Murray shows, I think, it is not altogether clear that he accepts the deal himself.) The Roman Catholic Church has shown itself unable to. Islam, it seems to me, has demonstrated clearly that it cannot accept the deal. Religions, it seems, cannot be — or at least find it almost impossible to be – places where the search for meaning is unencumbered by imperious belief. In part, of course, this is what they do provide, and I can witness to that myself, but only in part, and only in those parts where the amour propre of faith is not invoked. But, as religions, they are not just vessels, as Murray suggests, following Schopenhauer, for the kinds of truths about human meaning that religions have explored; they are also, and inevitably, proponents of a meaning which is intrinsic to the religions themselves. The vessels, in other words, are not empty to begin with; they have contents, largely undiscussed, and often undiscussable, of meanings established by the sacred texts and the doctrines and dogmas used to interpret those texts, and, as such, they are inevitable interlopers in the public sphere, dictating to others how they must live, even though they do not share the beliefs of believers, and some pious fraud will be perpetrated to make it seem as though this is a matter of simple humanity. This is something that Murray does not consider, and it is vital that it be considered and considered closely, for on the answer depends the outcome of this century, whether it will be like the 17th, divided by violent outbreaks of religion against those who doubt religion’s dogmas, or against the dogmas of religions not one’s own, or whether it will lead to the kind of thoughtful discussion that Ramadan, as a pose, proposes as the end of religious practice. From what I know about religion, I fear the former far more than I can believe in the latter.