Points made in discussion by Mick Leahy

1. I enjoyed the seminar and found the topic and the papers very stimulating. Thank you for the opportunity of participating in the discussion. I offer below a few comments that I hope may clarify what I said on Friday and perhaps shed some light on this very important topic.

2. I pointed out that the national study in which I participated (Cahill, Bouma et al. 2004) found that Muslims around Australia use the term ‘fundamentalism’ to denote other features of their faith than those connoted by Justin’s account of it. A ‘fundamentalist’ Muslim for them meant something like a sincere, observant Muslim. This is not to say that interviewees denied the existence among some Muslims of the features connoted by Justin’s definition; on the contrary, they admitted their own struggle with extremists in their own communities. My point here is that the strength of Justin’s case for accepting the connotations of ‘fundamentalism’ and for including certain Christian groups in its denotation lies in its sound empirical base. That base is lacking or at least has not been provided when the term’s application is extended beyond the relevant Christian communities. Muslims, and others, may feel irritated at an empirically unargued application of the term fundamentalism to them. Moreover, it may be that there are features of Islam that would require changes in the account of ‘fundamentalism’ presently advanced if that term were to be applied to them. For example, one wonders whether doctrine plays the same role in Islam as it does in fundamentalist Christianity. It may be that the empirical facts about Muslim communities would warrant some other conceptualisation of extremist behaviours.

3. The presenters were, of course, right in asserting that ‘fundamentalism’ connotes a particular interpretation of certain doctrines. However, it is important to recognise that the relevant doctrines are shared by all Christians. While there are some mainstream Christians who would deny the doctrine, most would hold some version, for example, of the doctrine of the ‘inerrancy of Scripture’. Moreover, as regards ‘militancy’, since Constantine’s establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, the institutional church has often come under pressure from the state to use state power to impose Baptism on non-Christians, and has all too often yielded to such pressure. Indeed, it has often taken the lead in seeking such use of state power. In fact, the belief that the church was the divinely appointed custodian of truth drove institutional intolerance of ‘error’ even into modern times.

The presenters may argue that the modernisation brought by the Enlightenment has led mainstream Christianity to recognise the rights of individual conscience, and that the religious tolerance based on that distinguishes such Christianity from fundamentalist Christianity. Up to a point, I believe this would be correct. However, it remains the case that mainstream Christianity believes in a revelation which in some sense (disputed between and within mainstream churches) constrains human reason. Thus, the distinction I take the presenters to be wanting to draw between the fundamentalist Christian and mainstream Christian positions on the role of authority in questions of truth may not do the job they want it to do. In short, it would be an error to think that most mainstream Christians had repudiated the traditional belief in the authority of divine revelation (a belief whose interpretation is much disputed) in favour of the Enlightenment belief in human reason as the sole authority in matters of truth. It would, however be true to say that the Enlightenment case for the authority of reason has forced mainstream Christian theology to radically rethink its understanding of both the content and the authority of revelation.

4. In my comments on Friday, I referred to a ‘gap’ in the presenters’ analysis of ‘fundamentalism’ and its appeal to its followers. I think that there are 2 aspects to this gap. First, the liberating possibilities offered by ‘fundamentalism’ to particular groups like women do not seem to me enough in themselves to explain the massive following attracted by fundamentalist Christian churches. Even if such possibilities did explain its appeal to females, how do you explain its appeal to males? Second, while Enlightenment secularism has something to offer humans in their search for meaning, it cannot offer what both fundamentalist and mainstream Christianity purport to bring to their followers. Enlightenment secularism offers freedom in its various forms. While I recognise and affirm the value of many of these freedoms, I point out that neither individually nor combined do they match the Christian promise of some sort of communion with the divine. Even if, by the standards of reason, Christian ‘fundamentalism’ offers an impoverished and even frightening account of Christianity, its main drawing power is its claim to put people in touch with the divine. Mainstream Christians, like secularists, are aghast at what they see as often grotesque distortions of their faith by ‘fundamentalists’ claiming to be guided by God. However, mainstream Christians are not willing to jettison the notion of divine revelation in order to distinguish their position from that of the ‘fundamentalists’. Mainstream Christians see a call to work for God’s kingdom of justice (the triumph of the order intended by God for his world) as part of the core of the Christian message (perhaps I misunderstood him but Jeff did not seem aware of this belief when he referred to the contrasting position of ‘the tradition’ in relation to the use of state power), but they do not see as legitimate the use of the power of the state to impose their conception of such an order upon society. Indeed, they believe that revelation provides no blueprint for a world order but only a range of images and values for devising such an order, and a mandate to cooperate with all people of goodwill in that process.

5. Of course, it would be possible to respond by saying that if mainstream Christians as well as fundamentalist Christians are bound by a so called divine mandate to work for what see as a just world order, then mainstream Christians too sin to some degree against reason and to that degree disqualify themselves from legitimately contributing to the building of truly just world. Several responses are possible here. First, in the form in which I have expressed it, this response simply assumes the correctness of the Enlightenment account of reason, and its authority to banish religious claims from the realm of public discourse. Second, it thus excludes a priori the possibility of religious traditions being potential sources of insight into public problems. Third, it instates secularism in place of Christianity as the authoritative ideology in modern western democracies. Fourth, either it sidelines from public debate religious groups who wish to express their views on public policy in terms of their faith, or it reduces public debate to a power struggle because the debaters are coming from incommensurate frameworks.

A more enlightened approach to these tensions between secularism and religion would seem to me to include an examination of the credentials of one’s own and the other’s positions. For example, are contemporary accounts of reason and revelation as antithetical as commonly assumed? If the Enlightenment can teach Christianity the value of individual freedom, can the Christian insight of the unique dignity of the person not help in criticising the utilitarian version of liberalism that permits torture of suspected terrorists? A dialogue on such questions would at least elucidate the abstraction used by Jeff (and, I realise, by Giddens) with which to contrast ‘fundamentalism’, namely, the ‘tradition’.

Cahill, Desmond, Bouma, Gary, Dellal, Hass and Leahy, Michael (2004), Religion, Cultural Diversity and Social Cohesion, Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Canberra, ACT.