Blair, Faith and Terror

The thing that really finished it for me with Tony Blair – more than student fees, over which I resigned from the Labour Party, and the Iraq war, over which I would have resigned if I hadn’t done so already – was his religiosity; which he kept hidden while he was in office, on the advice I imagine of Alastair Campbell. In my view that made it worse. You need to know what motivates your leaders while they have power, not afterwards, when it’s too late.

Now, I have nothing particularly against religion, so long as it isn’t too tightly organized: in ‘churches’, for example, or denominations, or sects. As it happens I have some beliefs myself which might be called religious; I won’t tell you what they are – you’d only laugh. They’re about the ‘after-life’, and don’t affect my political and other views. They’re also mere hypotheses, and so can be (a) doubted, and (b) tested – eventually. They’re not a matter of ‘faith’. It’s ‘faith’ that’s the problem. It implies something that can’t be tested. The word ‘blind’ fits it almost automatically.

It was when I realized that I needed ‘faith’ in order to continue calling myself a Christian, brought up as I had been in an otherwise very friendly and tolerant (Methodist) church, and with great admiration for the central teachings of ‘gentle’ Jesus – i.e. shorn of the awful Old Testament and the epistles of the Leninist St Paul – that I regretfully became an agnostic. (Not an atheist: that requires unquestioning faith too.) Faith seemed incompatible with my calling as an academic inquirer. In my inaugural professorial lecture at Newcastle I said that my favourite disciple was ‘Doubting Thomas’, despite the opprobrium that is conventionally heaped on him. (Whatever became of him afterwards?) I suppose I could have gone over to the C of E, which seemed quite tolerant then, until it (or some of it) discovered the evils of homosexuality, and that you had to have a penis to be a priest. I liked their architecture (see below) and music, and singing hymns. ‘Oh, you don’t have to believe anything to be an Anglican’, my C of E chums used to tell me, airily. But that wasn’t good enough, I thought, to allow me to mouth the words – ‘I believe in one God…’, and the rest – that would entitle me to join the club.

Tony Blair’s religiosity must explain why he was so much in favour of ‘Faith Schools’, which were also a big thing under the last Conservative government, and which drew hardly a whisper of criticism beyond committed ‘Humanists’. (I’m not sure that ‘Humanism’ isn’t a ‘faith’, too.) People seemed to think that because these schools were religious, they must inspire the ‘goodness’ that is often associated with ‘faith’; either by persuading their pupils, or by frightening them with the prospect of Hell. I’m sure that some of them do. But if they also teach that there are some things that can’t be questioned – ‘I believe in one God’, or Allah, or Yahweh, or whomever – they must stand solidly against the true aims of education, which are, above all else, to encourage intelligent thought. They can also dangerously divide communities. Northern Ireland is – or was – proof of that.

This brings me to today’s terrorist threat. For one of the characteristics that all the most dangerous political movements share is this ‘faith’ thing; Islamic fundamentalism most obviously these days, but also the Christian kind at other times, and secular ‘faiths’ like Soviet Marxism and the various varieties of Fascism. It’s what makes their adherents think they are entitled to force their beliefs on ‘unbelievers’, even by killing them and blowing themselves up with bombs. (Here’s where a particular vision of the afterlife might affect one’s conduct. Islamicist suicide bombers are apparently encouraged by the prospect of all those virgins waiting for them in Paradise. I should emphasise that my own view of the afterlife isn’t at all like that. Though – and here speaks the sceptic – I could be pleasantly surprised…)

So, to sum up: religion – OK, perhaps. ‘Belief’ – fine, if it allows for scepticism, and is supported by reason. ‘Faith’ – absolutely not. Just look at today.

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