Beyond Radicalisation and Religion

3 May

In the news today, the state government has announced a task force ‘to tackle violent extremism’ and the radicalisation of ‘disaffected youth’. The Premier recognises that this is a problem ‘right around the world’. See There are some helpful ideas here, acknowledging, as one community leader puts it, ‘you’ve got to give them a voice’.

I will dare to say one thing about this situation: it seems that many of those who are volunteering to join extremist groups are doing so out of a new-found sense of conviction. Some of them have actually experienced significant conversion, a real change in their attitudes and values. This is perhaps ‘radical’. But another way of seeing it is this: previously they were adrift, in a society that seems to have no real values at all, and now suddenly they are offered some clear and firm values, a sense of direction and meaning in life (and, even, in death).

This is what we really need to be thinking about. Why is it that many Muslim people, both in this country and in other places, look to ‘the West’, to our leaders, our media, our institutions and see only selfishness, shallow policies and a fundamental lack of conviction? What do we have to offer the ‘affections’, the passion of youth, that would warrant their whole hearted, body-and-soul commitment?

Against this background, I would like to quote from a Facebook post by a colleague of mine in the United States. This post was actually a bit of a rant, offered only to selected ‘friends’, so I can’t quote it in full. But several of his points are relevant here, so I’m reproducing them.

In the United States, there has been a rapid drop off in church attendances, more marked than in Australia where we never did have such high attendances. Theirs has been a much more ‘religious’ society and the ‘public religion’ has held on for so much longer. Not now: the rapid rise in the ‘Nones’ (no religion) is causing a lot of concerned debate and analysis. The ‘spiritual but not religious’ movement is well and truly established there, as it is here.

(Last week, the Wall Street Journal carried this story: The future of religion looks bright, but for organized religion, it’s a different story. The article explained that people continue to be interested in spirituality, but no longer see that in terms of belonging to a church. Familiar story there.)

So my colleague quoted the ideas of a person Christian Smith (source unnamed) who says that amongst American youth the dominant perspective is what he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. (Deism is an idea of God who is there, somewhere, but not actively involved in the world: God created things and has more or less sat back and let them take their course from then on.)

My friend comments: Though he recognizes that few if any of its adherents could articulate the main tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in a clear and concise fashion, Smith nonetheless contends that as you sift through hundreds of interviews with teenagers about God, religion, prayer and the like, a recognizable “creed” begins to emerge.   Its basic confession of faith includes:

1. There is a God who exists, who created and orders the world, and who watches over human life on earth.

2. This God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions (or as one young man summarized morality, “Just don’t be an asshole, that’s all”).

3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.

5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

I think this summary is very familiar to us. It’s essentially the ‘liberal’ outlook of the educated people of the last few centuries, who really believe in their own capabilities and achievements. What it doesn’t cope with, however, is tragedy, suffering, and (more than anything else) the human capacity for self-deception and sheer wrong doing: sin. As one person put it:  it’s a theology for a sunny day.

I’ve greatly benefited from the analysis in a book called America’s Four Gods: what we say about God and what that says about us, by Paul Froese and Christopher Bader (OUP, 2010).

This research argues that regardless of religious tradition (or lack thereof), Americans worship four distinct deities: the Authoritative God, who is both engaged with the world and judgmental; the Benevolent God, who loves and aids us in spite of our failings; the Critical God, who catalogs our sins but does not punish them (at least not in this life); and the Distant God, who stands apart from the world. The book discusses a number of the ethical challenges facing US society and the ways that these views of God lead people to different stances accordingly.

It’s obvious that the distant and benevolent Gods are winning out with the ‘Moralistic Therapeutic’ perspective above. But what is equally confronting is the possibility that those dissatisfied with such views are offered, instead, the Authoritative —or even Authoritarian—and Critical alternatives.

This is surely one of the sources of ‘radicalisation’: that there is nothing that looks like a God worthy of our worship: we are offered a God to fear, to try to keep on the right side of , or a God we really don’t need to bother about too much.

Bonhoeffer wrote: ‘Only the suffering God can help’. There is a massive job here for Christian theology and for all concerned Christians: to counter these hopelessly inadequate, and indeed hope-less, images of God with something more like the way of Jesus, God in human form and human life, a genuine partner, neighbour, friend: to show that God is both living and loving, not in some wishy-washy and ‘nice’ way, but indeed willing to suffer for and with us. And to show that this God has power: not domineering power, but the power of endurance, the power that is able to be humble, the power to engage with and wear down the machinations of power-hungry tyrants and manipulative rulers. This God is not like any other. This story needs to be told, again and again—as St Francis said, if necessary in words.

How do we counter ‘radicalisation’?:—with the most radical values and ethic of all: the way of Jesus.


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