Is religious co-operation really all that liberal?
Ecumenism and interfaith dialogue is big news these days. Last year Baroness Warsi, a Muslim, led a delegation from the UK, an officially Anglican state, to meet the Pope, and the result was a bit of a multifaith love-in. And just recently, I read about a new trend of Convergence Christianity, specifically described as not simply blending into a moderate middle, but rather being more open to discussion and adopting elements of each other’s practices, despite differences.
Ecumenical relations are often held to be a good thing, a sign of increasing religious liberalism and willingness to compromise. That’s a fairly obvious conclusion to draw when different religious traditions are prepared to talk and listen instead of condemning each other, but there’s another angle that may be worth considering.
What this trend suggests to me is not that these different religious traditions are more ready to admit that they may be wrong (although that’s probably true in some cases), but that they need the strength and safety in numbers that comes from identifying with a wider group. Given the chance, these groups would cheerfully fight each other, as Christians and Muslims have been for the last thousand years or so. The primary motivating factor here is not compromise and willingness to admit error, but weakness.
Take a look at Baroness Warsi’s statements at the time of the Vatican delegation. Her motivation is hardly obscure – she’s calling in reinforcements in the battle against those nasty “militant” secularists who object to religion having a privileged position in society. The battle’s being lost, so religious traditions that have barely been on speaking terms for centuries are huddling together for warmth. Pope Francis’s recent pronouncements have had a similar air, despite trying to include even atheists in his “big tent”.
Everyone believes their position is the right one (obviously), and important (hence the objection to secularism), so why align with a different group? Because they can agree on enough to unite against the common enemy, like Tom and Jerry fighting a new cat in the house. They don’t see eye to eye, but arguments between religions are a luxury they can ill afford when their most basic assumptions are threatened.
The less influence a particular sect, denomination or religion has, the more important it is to form alliances to protect their territory. That cuts the other way as well – as a group gets bigger, it has less need of the greater influence that comes from unity, leading to splits and schisms like the ones that have emerged within atheism in recent years.
When considering any apparent interfaith initiative, there are simple ways to tell the difference between genuine liberal discussion and self-interested coalition building – is it open to people of all faiths and none, and is it independent of any attempt to prop up the position of religion in the public sphere?
If the answer to both of those questions is yes, there’s a good chance that genuine progress and dialogue is being achieved. Otherwise, I suspect it’s just a cynical ploy.