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Damian Thompson, late of the Daily Telegraph, has an excellent piece in this week’s Spectator about ‘the real God wars’. I hope this is a presage of things to come, and that, freed from the need to feed his Saturday column with click-bait, we can see Dr Thompson back to his best, because, make no mistake, this really is a very interesting piece of commentary. A State Department and a Foreign and Commonwealth Office full of bright men and women with first class degrees from good universities, versed in the many models through which “International Relations” can be analysed, have failed, utterly, to comprehend the world in which they are living; nor is their failure simply an academic matter, it has serious consequences for all of us. William J Hague (as he styles himself on Twitter) is a very clever man indeed, and when he aligns himself with Brangelina to go on Twitter to protest against Boko Haram’s seizure of two hundred Christian girls in Nigeria he shows two things: a mastery of the social media which will warm the hearts of his advisers; and an utter want of understanding of his opponents which should chill the heart of everyone. The gesture wins approval from people who might not usually approve of a Conservative (and one should never underestimate the extent to which senior Conservatives feel the need to explain to fellow members of the Metropolitan elite that they do not eat babies for breakfast or harbour plans to exterminate the poor), but it does nothing to suggest that Mr Hague understands the situation in Nigeria; nor is the reason for that hard to seek.

Mr Hague is a generation younger than I am, but I am sure that the Oxford in which he was educated was no different from the one in which I received mine. The Dons were, to a man, Enlightenment intellectuals who were convinced that relgion was a sort of superstition which would die out as people became more educated. Some of them were, in best Richard Dawkins manner, ‘Anglican Agnostics/Atheists’, that is men who appreciated Anglican culture, but wished it did not come accompanied by all that supernatural stuff, and wondered how anyone bright enough to get to Oxford could actually believe it. They were relieved when they found that there were clever men who could explain most of it away and who argued that one could keep the sound moral core whilst discarding the husk; anthropology, philosophy and history could do their allotted work dissolving away the things which embarrassed intelligent men. The idea of actually studying these religions for anything more than historical or phenomenological purposes was not one encountered at seminars on international relations. What mattered there were the models which explained the Cold War, and then, for a brief triumphalist moment, the ‘end of history’ when liberal Enlightenment thought would, as indeed it was bound to, rule unchallenged. It was assumed that all of this was both inevitable and a good thing. We are now at a sufficient distance to see that it has not happened globally, but that where it has, as here and in Europe, it is far from an unalloyed good.

The assumption itself has led to responses to event sin Nigeria and the Middle East which, in less tragic circumstances, would be laughable. From within the Enlightenment model, it makes sense to respond to events in these areas by saying:

 ‘Every religion can be twisted into a destructive force poisoned by ideas that are antithetical to its foundations. Now it’s Buddhism’s turn.’ There speaks the sorrowful voice of liberalism — still piously attached to the notion that the true message of all religions is ‘peace’.

Dr Thompson notes well the reductionism involved in this sort of thinking. It assumes, that at base, everyone shares the liberal view that ‘peace’ is a good thing and that ‘war’ is bad. Historically there is no justification for this, and, in relation to the history of Islam, it requires a wilful blindness to think that it eschews violence to achieve its aims. Nor is this simply an anti-Muslim point. As Dr Thompson points put:

You won’t hear this on Thought for the Day, but religious violence isn’t exclusively inspired by hatred. During the Reformation, Protestant zealots invaded Catholic churches, smashing beloved statues and whitewashing precious frescoes. Modern Protestants are ashamed of these actions — but if you read Calvin you’ll find a coherent defence of iconoclasm. He believed that religious art invites man to worship the created rather than the Creator, beckoning him towards pagan demons.

Our own Bosco is part of a long tradition in Christianity.

The sad fact is that, without any background in theology or the history of religion, those who rule us and who advise them, along with those who comment on it all, are adrift of their intellectual moorings. The result is best described in Dr Thompson’s own trenchant words:

How interesting that it should be religion that reduced Hitchens and Richard Dawkins — deep thinkers and lovely writers — to spluttering incoherence. They couldn’t make sense of its new vitality. And, if we’re honest, most of us are puzzled. Even when we’ve joined all the dots, it’s hard to explain why ancient prejudices are being customised for the 21st century not just in the basket cases of the Middle East and Africa but also in Asian nations racing towards modernity.

He does not pretend to be able to unpack the answers to these questions, but in asking them he shows a greater perceptivity than our leaders.  Perhaps we should be turning out more theology graduates and fewer Pol Sci majors?