October 15, 2006

Faith and Politics

During the Iraq war and afterwards one of the major criticisms of Tony Blair was that he had a religious certainty about what was happening in Iraq and what should happen. Jeremy Paxman famously derisively asked Blair wherever he and Bush prayed together- and his public question was more polite than many things said in private around the time by opponents of the war. Living in a post-Christian society, Blair took as one of his tactics to justify the Iraq war a consistent insistance that secret information and also his own sincerity justified the invasion.

So why the controversy? Scepticism about religious thinking we are often told is a European thing: but is it in this case- is there something special about religious certainty about policy and how should we evaluate it. By way of digression and not logical or consistent argument, its useful to look at how one novelist imagines the effect of religious revelations upon politics. Naghuib Mahfouz's novel Akhenaten Dweller in Truth, as another internet reviewer at the Middle Stage has already discussed concentrates on how to reach truth, contrasting religious revelation with historical investigation and not neccessarily finding a way of justifying either.

What Mahfouz also describes though the effect of the leadership of a man who leads by religious revelation, who is certain and sincere (virtues Blair often claimed) but whose claims about his revelations are inaccessible to anyone else. His novel takes the form of several narratives of this man's (Akhenaten's) reign as Pharoah in Egypt from different perspectives. We hear the perspectives of those fearful of the new revelation (like the High Priest of the former religion), from those cynical about it (military commanders and priests), from those respectful (Akhenaten's father in law Ay), from those enthusiastic (the High Priest of the new religion and Akhenaten's chief sculptor) and from those close to Akhenaten (his wife Nefertiti, concubine and father in law).

Akhenaten's reign produced in Mahfouz's work division and discord, eventually he was deserted and betrayed by all his men and yet stayed resolute to the end in his own faith. This certainty allowed Akhenaten a kind of seraphical charm which Mahfouz describes convincingly as seducing many but leaving many feeling seduced or untouched. The problems in such a kind of rule- its innovations based on an unreachable dedication to a revelation are aptly described. Akhenaten fails in the book because he fails to convince enough people to move with him against the establishment because all he can offer them is his own certainty.

Mahfouz's book thus does everything described in the other review- analysing our perceptions of reality- but also he provides a subtle and educated analysis of why faith in politics is always a dangerous weapon to use for those who seek to change a nation- working from a base where a number of people disagree about the source of your faith- relying on revelation leaves you dividing those who support your character from those who don't find your character and your sincerity appealing.

Blair made the Iraq war a test of people's faith in his sincerity: like Akhenaten in this novel he failed to convince many who failed to share his faith and couldn't detect the facts that lied behind his sincerity.


Anonymous said...

We all have faith in our own judgements -learning to live with doubt has been described as the value of education once you have forgotten everything that you were taught! But there is a difference between faith in your own judgement and religious faith. The latter is too often based on someone else's judgement not your own - at the extreme we can see this in those who quote texts whose origins are often obscure (the Bible is a good example) but which also need to be interpreted relative to the time and place at which they were written - the Koran and the Old Testament spring to mind. The need to interpret these texts - for example to 'modernise them' to cover items unknown to the original authors - provides an opportunity for later political interpretation. And that is what we observe - too often religious faith is the faith of the bigot, the intolerant, and the oppressor.

If we stand up against these (Turkey and George Bush note well) we are standing up not against religious faith - which is personal - but against those who would impose it on others.

Gracchi said...

Yes I agree with you but I suppose my point was slightly different- you see part of the issue with religious faith is not merely the code found in a holy book but also the capacity of judgement. If you look at an English monarch in the 16th Century, he was supposed to be able to make decisions which nobody else could- God would directly involve himself in councelling the King. Some decisions in politics take the form of a punt- whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or not was ultimately a guess. Blair took that guess and thought it was enough to argue that he was sincere in taking it to justify his decision. That was where I thought Akhenaten came in as another man woh asked people to go along with him not because of his argument but because of his sincerity, his hidden revelation.

edmund said...

I fail to see how this akhaeatan-blair comment has anything to do wiht relgion

hte acual evidnce for Blair's faith is surprisngly scanty (rather like Bush's given how much wittering there is about it)

the irony is a man who is a congengenial liar has come unstuck one fo the times he was more sincere and honest (not very just more)

annoymous post seems to miss the point, just to take one point I'd be interested in what anonymous meant about George Bush ?

Gracchi said...

I disagree with you I think that Blair made a judgemetn call based on his certainty that he was right and that certainty flowed out of his religious faith. There is plenty of evidence that Blair is religious and bear in mind I am not attacking religion here at all just pointing out that decisions made on the basis that I am sincerely acting out the will of God have a tendency to prove divisive as in the cases of Akhenaten and Blair.

edmund said...

a) how on earht is blairs certialy his right because his religous, is this unknown among atheists Stalin, Lenni, wkins ect ect this just doesn't seem to be based on any evidence

b) I agree the idea that Blair religious himself is much better based unlike hte first point, however I remain sceptical , for a start what policy has he advocated that seems based in his religous views that goes against either the grain of his other views or even agaisnt his own advantage?

Anonymous said...

Religious belief, as compared to a more scientific worldview, facilitates certainty. Any good scientist accepts that in the face of contradictary evidence that their views/theories are wrong however in the worldview of the religious believer there is no room for such uncertainty. If you believe in God there is nothing that anyone can do or say to change this. I think that essentially Gracchi was saying that this certainty in religious belief can easily flow to a certainty of decision making.

Gracchi said...

Thanks Anonymous you've said it concisely and rightly. Its not that atheists can't stick to wrong decisions either- but its that the religious idea of a god endowed conscience or revelation does not permit the idea of error like a scientific empirical world view and consequently finds tolerating and understanding other views of the world difficult.

edmund said...

annoymonou I really think your point is obvious absurd and I'm disturbed someone as intelligent as Gracchi seems to fal for such falsed logic. Marx was an atheist-did he show flexigity when his theoreis. By defition the relgious believe in god-but to treat that as inflexibitliy could equally well be used agaisnt an atheist who by defintion can not be moved from their metaphysicla assertions-because if they were, they would cease to be an atheist! And belif in god is compatibe with a great deal of sceptisim in other fields eg Lord Salisbury.

Indeed the marxist soceties ie those built on atheism (uniquely) were at least as inflexible to the evident failure of their policies as the most rigid theocracy-indeed arguablly?

I also think we're getting of the main topic, what grounds are there for saying that Blaris relgions got anything to do with his desire to seem sincere (as opposed to his background as an actor and a lawyer) or his supposed "certiantiy" ( a certiatiy conspiculo7sl lacking in just about all his preivous career which saw the man who told foot he was inspired by Marx scrap Clause 4 and embrace Trident)

Anonymous said...

Edmund, I consider myself an atheist but if someone shows me undisputable evidence for the existance of God I will be forced to change my position. Thus the atheist is in a position whereby a change in their metaphysical assumptions is possible - there is no such evidence that one can present to a fervent religious believer to falsify their beliefs.

Back to Blair and he said in that interview with Parkinson "If you have faith about these things, then you realise that judgment is made by other people. If you believe in God, it's made by God as well." This clearly illustrates that there is certainty in his sincerity and that certainty is such that he is happy to put his judgement to the test in front of God. This is an unmovable certainty that can flow from a religious worldview. I can't imagine him putting his judgements to the test in the face of Darwin!

And, of course, I am not saying that all atheists are flexible or that all religious believers make all decisions with God-endowed certainty but there are times when this may have have an impact on decision making - ie Mr Blair's decision to go to war.

ferfuracious said...

A book with similar themes, but set in 16th century protestant England, is Ronan Bennett's "Havoc, in its Third Year". Highly recommended.

Gracchi said...

Thanks I haven't come across it but will keep my eyes open.