Roger Trigg: On Religious Freedom and Religious Extremism

By: Roger Trigg

September 9, 2011

Not all religion is good, and all religions have bred pathologies so that they have been corrupted beyond recognition. Religion of all kinds ought always to be part of the solution to the many problems facing humans, but at times can itself become part of the problem. Religions that should preach love, compassion and justice can themselves become breeding grounds for hatred, revenge, and violence. What are the conditions that can help to breed, even in the West, support for the kind of terrorism that was displayed with such terrible effect on September 11th ten years ago? Some actual and would-be terrorists, motivated by some twisted version of religion, have even been born and brought up in the West. We have, it seems, bred our own enemies.
One constant danger is that religious freedom can become interpreted as freedom for belief from all external examination and criticism. The relativism that is rampant in our contemporary world is too often content to allow believers of all kinds to retreat into their actual or imaginary ghettos, so that they are immune from outside influence. Rational criticism can become interpreted as offence to believers, and even blasphemy. Different groups then are left to live in different compartments, each with their own standards. A ‘liberalism’ that interprets freedom as the right to be left alone in one’s own culture, and a ‘pluralism’ that delights in diversity of belief as an end in itself, themselves degenerate into a relativism that sees any criticism of one religion from outside, let alone from the standpoint of another religion, as pernicious.

This has been helped philosophically by a ‘post-modernism’ that has poured contempt on the Enlightenment ideal of a common rationality to which all have access. At times religious people have seen appeals to such reason as hostile to religion, as ‘rationalism’ has appeared as a synonym for an aggressive atheism. There is, however, no need for reason to be so denigrated. Christians (and others) have seen reason as the gift of God, and itself built into the very nature of God. Indeed any attack on rationality inevitably becomes an attack on truth, and if religion cannot claim truth, it is worthless. Reason should be seen as the ally of all genuine religion, and also the indispensable accompaniment of freedom. Without reason, freedom degenerates into a series of arbitrary and inconsistent choices.

What has this to do with religious extremism? When people retreat into their self-contained forms of life, and become impervious to outside criticism, there is no way of separating out good from bad religion, the pernicious from the beneficent. This is not just a theoretical matter. In Britain, a policy of ‘multi-culturalism’ has been pursued over many years so that different communities, particularly those of recent immigrants, are encouraged to continue with their own ways of life to the extent that many (particularly women) from countries such as Bangladesh are unable to speak English even after living for twenty-five years in an English city. Governments have spent large sums of money on translating documents into other languages rather than ensuring that immigrants could speak English. This is but one symptom of ways in which communities can live in geographically the same space and yet remain totally separate from each other. This is bad for social cohesion, and clearly allows extremist views to fester in enclosed communities, and to influence those who are to a large extent ‘protected’ from any rational examination of what is being taught them. There is evidence that this is precisely what has happened with a minority of Muslim youths in some English cities. A few have been sucked into terrorist-related activities.

The paradox is that multi-cultural policies can be pursued because of a belief in the freedom of communities to follow their own ways of life. Yet all freedom must go hand in hand with a rationality that holds that we are all beholden to the same standards of truth. We all live in the same world and confront the same reality. That is what makes communication between different groups and societies possible. That is what underlies the possibility of all translation. Yet that means that true freedom demands that we all share the same rationality, and that extreme perversions of religion should not be allowed to go unchallenged because of some misplaced belief in tolerance. Those who preach what they believe to be true must be prepared to face the rational examination of their views. That is itself a reason why religion should be allowed to take its full part in public life. A religion that is forced back into the shadows of private life can fester in a dangerous way. Religious freedom demands that all religion be open to rational examination, not that it be protected from any scrutiny. If a religion is true it has nothing to fear from that.

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