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31 January 2008

The right way to “do God“

We need a more challenging idea of religion.

By Ziauddin Sardar

How should we “do God”? The question occurs to me as I watch the run-up to the presidential elections across the pond. A Mormon (Mitt Romney), an evangelical Christian (Mike Huckabee) and a devout Christian in the American black church tradition (Barack Obama) are hoping to become the next president of the United States. What will their religion bring to the table?

Religion, I fear, has been turned into a farce. This was well illustrated by Channel 4’s Make Me a Muslim, broadcast in December. Seven ordinary people from Harrogate, as randomly selected as any Big Brother contestants, were invited to live as Muslims for three weeks. The series came wrapped in the provocative question “Can Islam help repair the moral fabric of British society?” – intended to imply that religion has a positive contribution to make to our multicultural future.

What we were actually offered was a group of contestants being led through a rigorous course of sharia requirements, set by self-righteous mentors, some with only a passing acquaintance with the English language and British mores. A meeting of minds it was not. Neither was it a meeting with anything approximating a moral consciousness. Certainly it was not how I or the vast majority of Muslims I know would wish people to be introduced to our faith. Any religion reduced to a simplified list of dos and don’ts becomes nonsensical, bizarre and haphazard – what moral point is proved or gained by forcing people to wear a particular dress? Such insistence looks at religion through the wrong end of the telescope and deserves the derision it invites.

Being a religious person, in Britain, the US or anywhere else, is about concern for the moral fabric of society. It’s about struggling with moral dimensions of the inevitable choices and compromises we all make in negotiating the complications of life. What matters are the whys and wherefores of the conscience that directs our choices, the breadth of vision and aspiration we derive from the faith in which we believe.

Religion with the moral conscience extracted is a parody, exactly the parlour game Channel 4 offered. And, as such, it is an escape clause: follow the mechanics of ritual and imbibe the unthinking dogma. This is the slippery slope to complacency, the kind that substitutes obsession with the minutiae of one’s own little life for active engagement with the big, difficult questions of society as a whole. Or, worst of all, it makes religion an inflexible and totalitarian rallying cry, a battering ram for the imposition of forced compliance that denies any and all choices. You have those kinds of religion if you must; I would much rather have nothing to do with them.

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If religion is all about making moral choices, then there is none bigger than choosing one’s faith, the particular path by which one will “do God”. Here, our former prime minister has offered us a less than edifying example with his recent reception into the Catholic Church. We are asked to accept that Britain would have had as much difficulty accepting a Catholic prime minister as is alleged for a Scottish one. Both cases make bad news for equal opportunity for all, and especially for the freedom of religion we all supposedly enjoy.

Blair’s self-denying ordinance, postponing his choice until out of office, had its uses. It released him from the full complexities of wrestling with moral conscience over such questions as abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research, where party line and Church teaching diverge. A point that Ann Widdecombe, another convert to Catholicism, was quick to make. But then both seem to have transcended moral doubts and questioning over an illegal war, based on a false premise, to which Blair committed the country in the face of the moral opposition of virtually every religious establishment in Britain.

Now, to receive the consolation of absolution, Blair would still have to admit that he was wrong, flawed in judgement and weighed down with responsibility for deaths uncounted and counted, and accept all the devastation and human misery his decision brought in its train.

The fabric of any society is composed of questions of moral conscience and none of us can escape the obligation to make choices for which we must bear responsibility. Whatever the source of our inspiration, whatever our faith or no faith, none of us has the perfect or complete recipe for getting things right. That’s part and parcel of being human.

So the sooner we can be open and honest about how and why we struggle with the questions, the better, might I suggest, it would be for the quality of our political and public debate. I would never insist that everyone do the God thing, but I know we all need a more challenging idea of what “doing God” actually means.