On dryness

Kenan Malik points out that fundamentalism is an idea, not a biology.

Secularism and fundamentalism are not ideas stitched into people’s DNA. They are not born so. Secularist ideas and religious beliefs are like any values: people absorb them, accept them, reject them. A generation ago there were strong secular movements within Muslim communities and fundamentalism was a marginal force. Today secularism is much weaker, and Islamism much stronger. This shift has been propelled not by demographic trends but by political developments. And political developments can also help reverse the shift.

Kaufmann doesn’t deny any of this. But, he insists, nothing can stop the inevitable demographic triumph of the fundamentalists. Why? Because ‘we inhabit a period of ideological exhaustion’. The ‘great secular religions have lost their allure.’ In their place we have ‘relativism and managerialism’, outlooks that ‘cannot inspire a commitment to generations past and sacrifices for those yet to come.’

This gets us to the heart of the problem. For the real issue at stake is not demography but politics. I do not accept the secular ideologies amount to ‘religions’. But Kaufmann is right to suggest that in our post-ideological age, secularists find it much more difficult to inspire a sense of purpose and collective direction.

Yes, and ironically, fundamentalism itself fills the gap – fundamentalism does a brilliant job of reminding secularists why secularism is worth having and defending.

Not just the obsession with demography but the very fear of Islam expresses the lack of conviction in a progressive, secular, humanist project. The spectre of ‘Eurabia’ is really an admission that the critics of Islam lack the wherewithal to challenge the fundamentalists. Or, as Kaufmann puts it, ‘Dry atheism… can never compete with the rich emotions evoked by religion.’

I’m not so sure about that…But if it is right, then that’s another way “New” atheists are not such a bad thing after all. Part of what the Be Quieters hate about us is precisely our lack of dryness – our energy, our enthusiasm (in the older sense, the one that Hume and Mill senior were so wary of), our heat, our zeal. I can understand all that – enthusiasm and zeal are of course one short step away from more sinister qualities, or to put it another way, like so many things (respect, tolerance, liberty), they are only as good as they are: used for the right purposes they are good but used for bad ones they are a nightmare.

But all the same – I think in fact the current revival (so to speak) of atheism really is useful for altering the perception and perhaps the reality that atheism is dry while religion is full of rich emotions. I think we are doing at least a little to make it clear that atheism is not dry; that it too can evoke rich emotions. Atheism – at least in a context where the alternative is so visible and ambitious and competitive – is not just a negation, not just a no-god shrug. It is a liberation. It is the rejection of authority, tyranny, patriarchy, of bossdom of all kinds. It is the repudiation of the idea that there is a Superbig male Boss squatting at the top of everything and that we have to obey and worship and grovel to it. Freedom from that idea brings a lot of good things with it. Kenan indicates why.

The irony is that, for all their poisonous hostility towards Islam, the Eurabists express considerable admiration for Islamist arguments. Melanie Phillips is militantly opposed to what she sees as the ‘Islamic takeover of the West’ and ‘the drift towards social suicide’ that supposedly comes with accepting Muslim immigration. Yet she is deeply sympathetic to the Islamist rejection of secular humanism, which she thinks has created ‘a debauched and disorderly culture of instant gratification, with disintegrating families, feral children and violence, squalor and vulgarity on the streets.’

Phillips is talking idiotic nonsense. What does she think the culture was like before? What does she think 19th century culture was like? Or 16th century, or 11th century? What does she think life was like when the vast majority of people were dirt poor and illiterate and without rights? Does she think the whole world was a drawing room out of Jane Austen? This debauched and disorderly culture is one that is capable of improvement over time, and fairly short time at that; it is flawed but reparable; it comes with freedoms and rights and responsibilities that used to be reserved for one or five or ten percent of the population. Secularism is a big part of the reason for that; secularism makes belief in progress (not perfection, John Gray please note, but progress) more tenable and realistic.

There is nothing like a vivid sense of the alternative for making secularism and atheism seem about as dry as Niagra Falls.

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