Religious believers should be willing to salute the many blessings of pluralism, even if they remain ambivalent about its slippery parent, liberalism. Nick Spencer and Robert Reiss, two liberal British Christians, are as quick to deplore faith-based shackles as any atheist. They would add that a creed not freely embraced will induce stagnation or worse. But Spencer, by far the better-equipped of the two, might add a caveat. Isn’t the contemporary surge in fundamentalism itself in part a reaction against anti-religionists bent on muzzling faith-based voices? A glance at recent history in North Africa or the Middle East or India supports the hunch.
News that we inhabit a post-secular world – thanks precisely to globalization and democratization, most societies now display high levels of religious practice – has also yet to permeate bien-pensant corners of the West. Several random examples bear this out. The printmaker Anthony Green has said in a BBC interview that an interest in religious themes can be the kiss of death to an artist’s career. The quest for transcendence tends to be shunned in contemporary fiction, too. Hailing Marilynne Robinson’s novels Gilead, Home and Lila, the journalist Bryan Appleyard has written that these works will seem odd to large numbers of people, “because what is going on here is religion”. He added that “many, probably most, British people – artists, writers, audiences – will find this exotic because to them, religion has been embarrassed out of existence”. Another sort of cautionary tale is supplied by Iain McGilchrist, psychiatrist and critic. His masterpiece, The Master and His Emissary (reviewed in the TLS, April 2, 2010), uses discussion of left- and right-brained perspectives on the world to question narrow modern models of what counts as genuine knowledge. In essence, McGilchrist argues that tasks associated with “left-brained” activity such as problem-solving are still valued far more than the right brain’s less tractable but equally important grasp of the big picture. The author granted in private that his book was heavily religious in inspiration. But if this were broadcast, he warned, other scholars would not bother to read it.
Two questions arising from this sketch are critical, both of them focused by Joe Moran’s recent Guardian tribute to Clive James for his reflections on “the whole pointlessly beautiful farrago of human meaning-making”. First, is secularism really robust enough to carry the freight once shouldered by the Church in Europe? Ask politicians or NGOs about the functional aspect of human rights, say, and you’re likely to get an assured answer. Ask about the source of those rights, or about deeper questions of truth and purpose, and the replies are coy. Second and more significantly, is Moran’s apparent assumption that we are simply dancing a minuet around the void actually true? Armchair philosophers – many of them far less acute than James or Moran – regularly announce that the centre cannot hold. As Terry Eagleton among others has emphasized, such people can purchase their unbelief on the cheap, usually by setting up a straw man version of religion no thoughtful believer could accept, before felling it with a single puff. To counter that things do not fall apart may take courage, or insight of another sort – or maybe just the innocence of a child.