Monday, November 20, 2006

Three Cheers for Religious Extremism!

If there is one thing about which everyone is agreed, our society must root out what is called "religious extremism". The media rant about it, polticians despise it and it is obvious fodder for political cartoonists and satarists alike. It seems that "reasonableness", "tolerance", "education" and "the law" are the tools to be used to rid the UK of this menace.

The only problem is that as yet, none of these groups has taken a moment to define what this "religious extremism" is supposed to actually be. It's not merely that the "F" word can be used to shut down any discussion about religion (fundamentalist/ism, that is), but that the word has become almost devoid of any meaningful content, and is deployed as a pejorative dismissal of any person who has stronger beliefs than the speaker! The word is therefore used as a power-tool with shifting meaning, rather than a helpful adjective with a shared understanding of its content.

A Christian who believes that The Bible is inspired by God and wishes to live by it is dismissed as a "Fundamentalist"; whereas a Muslim who believes that the Koran comes from God and wishes tolive by it, is praised as a "Moderate" if they condemn terrorism! The Evangelical Alliance is currently at loggerheads with The Daily Telegraph who juxtaposed a peaceful Christian protest led by Brain Mahwhinney with some Islamists with placards reading "Behead those who insult Islam" - inviting the reader to dismiss both as comparative examples of "religious extremism" (boo - hiss!). We urgently need a new word which distinguishes those willing to use violence to persue religious ends from believers of all faiths committed to exclusively peaceful means.

The problem with all this is not just that this agenda is used by secularists to avoid ever having to listen to any argument from a Christian perspective. The greater problem with all this is that I have met some truly wonderful genuine religious extremists in my life, and cannot join in the roar of dissaproval. Take "J" for example, an excellent surgeon who could have made a lot of money in the UK but was driven instead by his Christian faith to invest his life in delivering health care improvements to people in Asia. This is all-consuming religious extremism! Or take, "D". working hard in the centre of London offering practical help and Christian spiritual hope to some of the most deprived members of society, or "A" working with city kids with social and behavioural problems, or "R". who has dedicated his life to sharing the gospel and serving the people who come to the Christian centre he runs in inner London, or "K" helping young men get off drugs.

All of these people are genuine "religious extremists" doing what they believe God has called them to do; seriously seeking, with God's help, to serve others in a Christlike way. So let's drop this pernicious use of the term "religious extremist" as a catch-all dismissal. In truth religious extremism is an empty term, because what determines the benefit or danger to society of the believer is not their level of extremism, but the content of the religion they profess.

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