On Multiculturalism And Religion – Jesus Doesn’t Morris Dance

When we think of multiculturalism we tend to think of an educated internationalist outlook: a broad modern palate able to appreciate foods, wines, books, music and art from around the world. We also tend to include religion on that list; but that is a mistake.

Religion is in another category than food, clothes and wine. It is a system of ideas in its own right, and, what is more, it is a system of ideas that stands in absolute opposition to the multicultural principle. Religion is about narrowing options: reducing the amount of reading, reducing the number of competing thoughts, channelling everything towards the one book, the one way, the one lord. When religious people pretend they are multicultural they are being dishonest, and when we accept them at their word we make a grave error. A repressive idea is hiding behind a liberal idea and we are blithely stamping it and passing it along.

This error can be expressed as a syllogism:

multiculturalism is educated and enlightened,

religion is classed as multiculturalism,

therefore religion is educated and enlightened.

Picking apart almost any debate on the subject can quickly expose enough contradictions and dubious pronouncements to illustrate the theory.
On August 17th, an Imam and a Priest were on BBC London News to discuss the proposition, Has Multiculturalism Worked? That will do nicely.

The debate was a response to the bomb fears at Heathrow. It lasted only about five minutes and it wasn’t especially enlightening. In fact, it felt as if we had watched this same item many many times before. The Imam got angry, the Priest got terribly terribly reasonable, if you wrote it as drama it would be ripped up for clichés. Which is why it will do nicely. You don’t need any elaborate set-up to make this case; it’s all there in a stock encounter. When religion plays at being multicultural the façade can’t hold for long.

The debate finished with the Imam and the Priest concluding that multiculturalism is ok; that any tensions in society are absolutely nothing to do with religion and that if we all respected one another’s religion everything would be all right.

There were at least five things tricksy and wrong with this encounter. There were probably more, but these five lurched up largest, and all five are symptoms of the same big mistake. Let us call it The Chicken In Black Bean Sauce Mistake: religion is not benign exotic culture, and when we treat it as if it were we give it an inappropriately soft handling.

Mistake One: religion is politics.

The habit of axiomatically treating clerics as moralists and intellectuals never fails to irk, but even the BBC should have noticed that two men who believe the good stuff starts with death, does not a balanced panel make.

(Note: a religious person might be moral and might be intellectual, but you don’t have to look too far into the wars and the gallows and the bonfires to see that morality should not be assumed, and you don’t have to look too far into the magical ideas and the rejection of science to see that intellectualism should not be assumed either.)

Whether it is right to live as though the next world is the main event is not the issue. The point is that that is a complete worldview. It has something to say about every aspect of life, and something quite particular. Clerics sell a special sort of politics and we should be aware of this when we give them empty hustings to make their pitch.

Note, however, that it would not be worth an argument if it were two musicians on a panel. That is because musicians do not generally have an all-encompassing political agenda; neither do dancers, neither do chefs. In this respect religion differs from everything else on the multicultural list, and when we miss that difference we allow religious leaders a freedom we would allow no other politician. For religion is politics; and tough politics too.

Mistake Two: autocrats aren’t multicultural.

By its very nature monotheistic religion is an autocratic political theory: one ruler, one law, no dissent, and punishment for eternity for anyone who steps out of line. Some people will argue that that is a very strict understanding of religion and no one really believes that stuff these days. Well maybe they do and maybe they don’t, but those beliefs are so very far from the multicultural ideal that we need more than assumption to let them pass. Besides, if someone says they stand for one thing why would you assume that they actually stand for something completely different? Are you calling them a hypocrite? That is just rude. Take doctrine at face value until there is good evidence not to, and this rule holds doubly fast when the doctrine is totalitarian. You are playing foolishly with freedom if you let authoritarian ideology shrug past. Moreover, the facts have a bad habit of fitting just fine with the intolerant core belief: Christians threaten to murder BBC executives who show Jerry Springer The Opera; the Ayatollah puts up money to have Salman Rushdie killed; the Taliban blow up the Bamiyan Buddhas. Inviting two monotheists onto BBC London News to declare how much they love broadening culture seems, shall we say, odd.

Mistakes Three and Four are just for fun. Remember the debate conclusions:

…any tensions in society are absolutely nothing to do with religion
and that if we all respected one another’s religion everything would be all right.

Mistake Three: if the tensions in society are absolutely nothing to do with religion, how can respecting religion be the answer?

A 180 spin has been executed in the middle of that sentence. It is a smooth piece of logical stunt driving and one expected to catch the Imam and the Priest winking at each other and giving big thumbs up when it passed uncontested.

Occasionally religion needs a flat out lie to make it look liberal; here is a large one. The particular tensions in society in the week of the debate were over the plan to slaughter hundreds of airline passengers out of Heathrow. The Imam and the Priest brazened it out: there was no way that this was at all a religious thing. That would imply that religion was an intolerant sort of thought system. Shoulders back, chin out, nobody blink. Unfortunately, that large lie is undermined by the way the current run of Islamic killers keep making videos to tell the world that it definitely is a religious thing.

Let’s take another look at the conclusion:

…if we all respected one another’s religion everything would be all right.

Mistake Four: monotheism proposes one absolute truth; it is therefore de facto impossible for true believers to respect one another’s religion. If I honestly believe in my one God, then I must believe that your different God is a faker, a sham and a false idol.

Note that it is not de facto impossible for a lover of Italian shoes to respect Swedish meatballs. The elements of what one might call consumerist multiculturalism – music, food, dance – can sit happily side by side. But religion, if it is sincere, demands we start cutting other things out. That is not multiculturalism, and when we say that it is, we are laying antitheses in a line and calling it agreement.

Mistake Five: talk of respect.

The Imam and the Priest called for us all to respect one another’s religion. Calling for respect is a common liberal move and it tends to sound eminently reasonable. But it is not.

In a free society you absolutely do not have to respect other people’s systems of ideas. That is the whole point. You have complete freedom to question them, improve upon them and mock them as you choose – and never forget that a religion is just a system of ideas with a magical fantastical dimension.

No particular deference should be shown to supernatural worldviews. If Paine can be mocked, so can the tooth fairy.

Furthermore, if the system of ideas in question is a repressive one, then as far as you have any duty, you have a duty to show disrespect. Stand up for freedoms other people bled to give you.

Anyone who asks for enforced respect is asking for some very serious powers. They would need a very large thought police squad to check all the libraries, consider all the minds and wipe all the lobes of any dissent. A quick list of interesting questions makes the multicultural credentials of this position look rather hastily stamped:

  • How can we study science if we have to check results to see they don’t make a mockery of x possible holy books?
  • How can we respect the voice of the democratic mass if we have to first respect the booming voice of a very large god?
  • Who decides if enough scraping respect has been shown?
  • Who decides the punishments if it hasn’t?

Don’t trust people who talk earnestly of respect. It is an elastic word that springs back very tightly.

Of course, when some people talk of respect they don’t mean obeisance, they just mean tolerance or accommodation. But we should not automatically assume that this gentlest interpretation of respect is the one religious people are using. The British government plays with extending the blasphemy law; a Sikh mob attacks a theatre; this is respect for religion enforced by prison and sticks.

Five errors in a five minute debate, and it looks as if you’d have to be paying very loose attention to let religion pass itself off as multicultural.

Perhaps religion gets away with it because it is surrounded by so much soft culture: music, buildings, statues, etc. At the same time, much western religion has become gently agnostic. Christian festivals meld into pagan feasts; fir trees and bunnies mix up with mangers and crosses; the theological core grows dim. When people look at religion they don’t see an ideology, they just see vaulted roofs, minarets and candles, and those all seem perfectly fine on a multicultural list.

Which raises the question; can religion ever be soft enough to be multicultural? Could some god not call out for a liberal agenda?

A rough definition of religion is, rules for living built around an otherworldly entity. It is these rules that separate religion from general belief in magic, but it is also the rules that make religion something more than Chicken In Black Bean Sauce. However laissez-faire they are, rules for living are a sort of politics. You might argue that these could be largely unenforced, but the fervour with which they are implemented doesn’t alter their nature. Socialism lying in a book is still a plan for the world and still different from dancing, painting or singing.

What about agnosticism? Could the low burning western religion, described above, be reconciled with multiculturalism? After all, if God is only a maybe, then it is only maybe important that you smash up other people’s libraries. But agnosticism isn’t really religion; it’s a sort of giving up. Without the leap of faith a church is a husk. Belief is the core: the unyielding heart around which the world must mould.

However, because religion is such a potent idea we should be wary of it even as it winds down. An agnostic might not be strictly religious, but might be perfectly capable of intolerance. Whether this is bet hedging, reflexively going through old motions, or simply missing the piety and the power, a church must lie dormant for a long while before it is considered safe, and each quiet church must be judged in turn.

Perhaps it is time to get rid of multiculturalism altogether. There is something lazy about so large an idea. Saying, it’s all good, means you don’t have to properly evaluate each new arrival.

A few years ago Frieze magazine discussed getting rid of the word ‘art.’ Too many things hid behind it which ought to be judged on their own merits. Rather than call it all art we should ask whether this is a good painting, or a good sculpture or a clever concept. Probably we should make the effort to judge cultures in the same way, not just assume they’re good because multiculturalism is good.

All of which takes us back to the syllogism at the top. Religion gets unearned liberal credits by being associated with multiculturalism, and liberal is not its natural form. In “The Passionate State Of Mind,” Eric Hoffer argues that intolerance is not an unhappy side effect of religion, but the whole point. Choice and responsibility are terrifying; people yearn for a hard channel through which their lives might flow. A liberal religion would never satisfy that yearning.

In conclusion, religion is a natural monoculture. In fact, it is the ur-monoculture. It doesn’t like a lot of books. It doesn’t like a lot of films. It doesn’t like too many freedoms. If you put it in a sack with everything else, you will come back later to find one large sated beast and lots of little bones.

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