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Into battle, armed with morality

Good and Bad Religion Peter Vardy

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eter Vardy has played a seminal role in helping a generation of sixth-formers to

get excited about studying religion by writing key exam texts. Vardy’s crystalline prose – lucid summaries, cutting through thickets that could mentally choke any normal human being trying to think their way through problems – is enviable. In his latest book, he addresses the question that inevitably arises when religions live in close quarters with each other – how does one discern good from bad religion? When the call to early morning prayer from the mosque mingles with the aroma of sizzling bacon in the Christian’s frying pan, or when the Dawkinian neighbours play their music


Christopher Howse writes The Tablet’s Presswatch column.

Gavin D’Costa is professor of Catholic theology at Bristol University.

Thomas Harrison is Rathbone Professor of Ancient History and Classical Archaeology at the University of Liverpool.

Mary Blanche Ridge is a freelance writer. Daniel Jeffreys is a freelance writer.

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20 | THE TABLET | 29 January 2011

extremely loud, the peace is easily threatened. The Christian and Muslim might even band together against their common atheist enemy. Vardy’s advice is that, rather than forming gangs, we should face the question about good and bad religion with the common good in mind. Vardy argues that those in religions should join with atheists in criticising bad religion. Atheists likewise should recognise complexity, colour and difference within a single religion as well as learn that their own naturalism is not quite as unquestionable or self-evident as they sometimes think. Vardy is uncomfortable about making judgements about good and bad religion based on the truth-claims of one religion alone. Verifying such “truth” is notoriously complex, but the favoured social alternative – relativism – is equally unhelpful.

Where do we turn for help? Vardy

inspects morality as an answer. The weakness here, however, is that such a move leaves us in an enfeebled position: what if we find racial genocide is demanded by a scriptural text? On the other hand, Vardy is sensitive to the problems of drawing on ethical criteria external to a religion.

At this point, just when we wonder

whether Vardy’s quest for criteria for judging religions is doomed, he develops an interesting solution. He finds in some forms of monotheist traditions and also within types of atheism a common reliance on Aristotle with his profound concern for rationality and virtue. Both the religious and secularists can harness this Aristotelian approach within their own tradition, while also sharing something in common when thinking through what constitutes good and bad religion. Vardy then moves seamlessly on without considering the serious objections to his kind of solution in the works of writers like Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas or John Milbank. Instead, he claims strong allies: the defenders of natural-law tradition and those like Pope Benedict XVI who seek to employ rationality to defend the claims of revelation.

Vardy tests his approach by asking questions about how good and bad religions relate to authority, Scripture, science, justice, equality and freedom. If these questions can be answered, then the religious and non-religious can unite to develop common ethical solidarity and resist bad religion. The gist of Vardy’s argument, over six chapters, is that authority employed without rational argument and allowance for conscience is suspect. Reading Scripture without attention to context and hermeneutics leads to bad religion which increasingly falls back on authority to sustain its interpretation. Religions that resist the long-established findings of science, when science respects its own limits, lead to unnecessary shooting matches that often illuminate the contestants rather than the disciplines they allegedly cherish. And with the final three Enlightenment epithets, justice, equality and freedom, Vardy argues that the religions are as good as secularists in promoting these virtues, and as bad. Compare the Gulags, Hitler’s National Socialism and the Inquisition. Indeed, good religions over a long period have a pretty impressive record. Vardy is constantly alert to the fragile and contestable solutions he offers, but rightly insists that if we do not try, failure is immensely costly. Vardy’s numerous examples from atheism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam help to illustrate his equally numerous claims. The paucity of examples from Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and other Eastern traditions is, however, a worry, especially as his (Western) Aristotelian ethical ship is most vulnerable when it enters into choppy Eastern waters. While there are analogical similarities to the natural-law tradition, there are also some vertiginous whirlpools given the startlingly different estimations of the status of “Creation”. Vardy’s argument might work better with the traditions nurtured within the Greek classical orbit, but even here Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech returns to haunt: how are “we” to argue rationally with Western religious traditions that give low value to reason and place a high premium on a revelation that requires no reason for its intelligibility? Here, Vardy calls for Christians to argue with Christians and Muslims with Muslims – and so on. While internal criticisms might help the wider peace, such arguments can be bloody and costly in the extreme, but Vardy insists that justice must be sought “whatever the cost”. The liberal can slip into illiberalism at this point, for whose justice and which rationality do we employ? Gavin D’Costa

Peter Vardy: bear the common good in mind when making judgements about the merits of religion or atheism

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