Debate: This House WOULD Tolerate Religious Fundamentalism

19th November 2018

On Friday, I had the pleasure of opposing the motion, “This house would not tolerate religious fundamentalism” at Exeter University Debating Society. My team mate was Simon Perfect of Theos. We were opposed by Chris Street of the Atheist Society and Helen Nicholls of the National Secular Society.

Helen and I essentially agreed with each other, with slightly different emphases. She would have been happy to have spoken on either side of the debate, as would I. As with most debates, much turns on the way in which the motion is framed.

Here’s a summary of my argument.

My starting point was that it is essential to distinguish theocracy from fundamentalism. They aren’t the same thing. Theocracy is always objectionable, even if the theocrats happen to be socially liberal.

It is fair to say that fundamentalists are usually socially conservative. But that is their business, and not ours. Many fundamentalists are merely seeking to live by a personal social code, which they don’t seek to impose by law or force on other people who don’t share their beliefs. A fundamentalism which observes that self-denying ordinance is unobjectionable. 

Secularism is grounded in liberalism. At its heart is the idea that the state should restrain itself to the maximum extent from coercing citizens either in to, or out of, any particular religious belief or practice. It is easy for liberals to tolerate other liberals. But the true test of a strong liberalism is whether it also works for religious conservatives.

We must also distinguish secularism from atheism: they aren’t the same thing. Indeed, secularism has strong religious roots. Secularism emerged in Europe from a period of intense conflict between religion and the state. It values freedom of conscience. It provides a framework within which people of heterodox religious faith can live together.

Although this might sound surprising, thinkers and groups which we might call ‘fundamentalist’ have often been strong proponents of secularism. If you think about it, it is not difficult to see why that might be. If you are a highly religious person, the last thing you want is for other deeply religious people to persecute you for minor doctrinal deviations. If you are a cleric, you may well take the view that acting as a legislator or ruler is a poisoned chalice: the last thing you want is to be blamed for every failure of the state, up to and including fluctuations in the price of bread.

Within Iran, prior to the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the standard Shia position was that the role of the clergy in ruling should be extremely limited, and should apply only to the interpretation of religious law. A number of prominent Iranian Ayatollahs were killed, exiled, or put under house arrest for insisting on this point.

The position of the leading Deobandi cleric, Husain Ahmad Madani is instructive. He opposed the creation of Pakistan on the grounds that states should not be formed on the basis of religion, but geography. He wanted Muslims to  

“live as observant Muslims in a religiously plural society where they would be full citizens of an independent, secular India”

I concluded:

Our side of the debate would support a motion which opposed theocracy. But that is not the motion. However, if you believe in secularism, pluralism and religious freedom, you must vote against the motion.

Simon Perfect made similar arguments to me. He was absolutely splendid, and a first class debater, despite never having debated before. But then, he is also a lecturer at SOAS.

At the beginning of the debate, the initial vote was strongly in favour of the motion, and against us. By the end, I’m glad to say that we had a large majority against the motion.

We won!