ALLAN PATIENCE. Why the debates about Islam have gone off the rails

Jul 22, 2016


One of the persistent conceits of modern history has been the growing conviction that rational scientific enquiry will completely remove religious thinking from human consciousness for all time. Positivist fundamentalists like Stephen Hawking or so-called “New Atheists” like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have triumphantly echoed the Nietzschean declaration “God is dead” without understanding that this was Nietzsche’s anguished cry in response to modernity’s mindless stampede into what he believed was a ghastly post-mythic abyss. A similar despair engulfed one of the very greatest sociological theorists of modernity, Max Weber, who accused its protagonists of “disenchanting” the human experience by locking it up in an “iron cage of rationality.”

Modernity’s cheerleaders are the victims of an amazingly arrogant hubris that has many of the characteristics of religious extremism. Their core belief is that the world, and all that it contains (including human beings), can be completely understood and comprehensively explained in rational scientific (i.e., empirical) terms. As Hawking has asserted: soon there will be a scientific theory for absolutely everything. He is terribly misguided in this belief. There can never be such a theory – only a blind faith in a physicalist orthodoxy that is as mad as belief in a flat earth.

First, modernity’s advocates blithely ignore the fact that the modern project has failed to live up to its promises. Modernity was supposed to deliver prosperity, progress and peace to the entirety of humanity. Instead it has bequeathed to the vast majority of the world’s population massive inequalities, injustices and suffering, while endowing rich elites (located mostly, but not entirely, in the west) with technologies of war and economic power (e.g., big banks “too big to fail”) that enable them to devour ever-larger shares of the world’s dwindling resources.

Secondly, they fail to comprehend the mind-ful instinctiveness (in contrast to biological instinctiveness) that has driven humanity to search for transcendental meaning within the interstices of its material circumstances. To dismiss this instinctiveness is to totally misunderstand a vital aspect of what it means to be human. And repressing it will inevitably provoke desperate reactions leading to extremist measures currently deployed by Islamist fanatics as they struggle to have their voices heard and their identity recognised.

Thirdly, advocates of modernity’s anti-religious ideology are shockingly ignorant of the history of the world’s great religious traditions. In particular they dismiss the era of imperialism, when early modern colonialism imposed destructive regimes upon time-honoured cultural traditions. This history is central to what is happening in places like the Middle East and Southeast Asia today. The a-historicity that is at the heart of modernity leads its policy makers and mainstream intellectuals in directions that lead inevitably to catastrophe. They completely misunderstand Nietzsche’s despair.

Fourthly modernity’s wildly over-generalized critiques of religion result in way too many babies being hurled out with the bathwater. Their un-nuanced Aunt Sally accounts of religious beliefs and institutions have proven to be utterly devoid of hermeneutical understandings of positive and negative religion. This distinction urgently needs to be elaborated if the contemporary debates about Islam are to be brought back on to the rails.

Modernity’s blind-siding of in-depth analyses of humanity’s great religious traditions has plunged the world into a crisis of devastating dimensions. Globally, coalitions of the willing and the cajoled are being pushed into endless wars against terrorists that in turn provoke organised and “lone wolf” terrorist reactions, often on an apocalyptic scale. No one seems to realise that this is rapidly becoming a case of the crazily blind leading the crazily blind. The world has become like a pack of mad dogs chasing their tails.

This is painfully evident in contemporary Australian politics. The strategic case for this country’s involvement in the war against the Islamic state has never been properly made. Indeed the case against Australia’s involvement in that tragic conflict is conclusive. Australia should withdraw its troops and defence materiel immediately. In the public arena all sorts of extreme views are gaining currency, fanned by an intellectually irresponsible and ideologically blinkered media. Calls for banning Muslims from migrating to Australia and for limiting Muslims’ human rights generally are becoming ever more strident – and ugly. No one (including most Muslim clerics and intellectuals) has stopped to really convincingly expound on the positive attributes of Islam. This is an appalling situation because there are many positive aspects in that great religious tradition.

At the same time, in as much as religion has had any intellectually serious in-put into the debates, a shallow and negative version of Christianity on the one hand, and an intellectually vacuous version of secularism on the other, are being mindlessly parroted in the public domain as if they are beyond questioning – which is far from the case.

Our times cry out for a completely new discourse on religion. We need to come to grips with the fact that humans are mindfully hard-wired to desire a deeper meaning to life than the glib cacophony of media “entertainment,” commercialized sports, and “got-ya” politics that crowd in on our contemporary consciouness and befuddle our understandings of what we are as a species today. To achieve this new discourse will require understanding that modernity’s underlying ontology is as metaphysically based – and as potentially dogmatic and constrictive – as any other faith-based system. The way ahead in this vitally important journey is to start distinguishing clearly between negative and positive religion, while understanding that a focus on religions’ positive attributes will help us climb out of the terribly abyss into which we are presently plunging.


Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.

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