Oct 25 2012

The Persistence and Problem of Religion

On Wednesday, I ventured into the halls of academia to hear Douglas Pratt’s Fulbright Lecture on the “The Persistence and Problem of Religion.” I hadn’t seen him since about 1988 when we were both University Chaplains. It was good to see that he has made his way in the academic world and evidently feels at home in his role.

While secularisation theory predicted the inevitable decline and eventual end of religion, religion persists and may even be on the increase. Doug explored this continuing role of religion. NZ as a secular society did not intend to exclude religion. Rather, it aimed to have a level playing field for all religions, in a nominally Christian context. What we have today, however, is a tendency to airbrush religion out of things, not to acknowledge and understand that there is a religious aspect to major political events, or, worse, to crudely reject a religious value system.

Religion can have a constructive role in education, promoting intercultural understanding, tolerance and harmony. However, religious education must be distinguished from indoctrination. It is teaching about religion, not manipulation into a religion. It must educate us in religious diversity; it is not aimed at formation of the individual within a particular faith tradition.

But the problem of religion is extremism, an inability to accommodate diversity, a rejection of the other. Fundamentalism per se is not the problem; it’s the development  of an exclusivist extremism.

The lecture operated at a fairly high level of abstraction. I would have liked more examples and more detail about the examples he did give. Ed Husein was a radical Islamist, but came to reject the exclusivist extremism without leaving the path of Islamic faith. What was the attraction of radical Islam and what led him to give it up? I would also like to have seen more insight into the dynamics that lead to such extremism. There’s something about religion (or is is just about being human?) that tends towards such extremism. This is not about condoning or tolerating such extremism, but about understanding religion “from within” rather than “from outside” only. A good example of such an approach is Matthias Beier’s article On the Psychology of Violent Christian Fundamentalism: Fighting to Matter Ultimately.

One of the good things religious studies academics can do for us is to make us aware of new developments in the field: stimulating ideas, new trends, significant research. Accordingly Doug referred to Alain de Botton’s new book Religion for Atheists.  He briefly mentioned the Debray Report. Secular France asked Debray to investigate the possibility of teaching religion in schools, because of the complexities of a multi-ethnic multicultural society, in strife because of the banning of headscarves. He also quoted Linda Woodhead, a professor of the sociology of religion, who turns out to be a real discovery.  Her podcast on secularisation theory is just brilliant. You can access it here:

I came with a lingering prejudice about religious studies, that it tends to try to be neutral and scientific and to observe religion from the outside.  I have to say that my prejudice was neither confirmed nor entirely dissipated.





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