‘You have to translate religious language into ‘secularese’

Timothy Garton Ash
Timothy Garton Ash
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

How would you suggest someone read religious texts in a secular manner?
I would not dream of prescribing to anyone how they read a religious text. I think they should read it however they want to. What I would insist upon, about the nature of every religious text known to me, is that they have multiple interpretations, and the person I distrust is a person, be they a devout believer or total atheist, who says this is the one true interpretation of a holy text. The other point, which is very important, particularly for us in Europe, is to have a way of understanding the message of a religious text in a secular society. In a way, you have to translate this religious transcendental language into what I would call ‘secularese’, into a language that others can understand.
Someone once quite rightly said that the Quran, or indeed the Bible or the Torah, is not an automobile instruction manual. It’s not a precise set of instructions. The Quran, like many holy texts, has multiple, not obviously consistent, messages. Let me give you an example. We have on our Oxford University website an interpretation by a very learned Iranian scholar, Mohsen Kadivar, who says on a very scholarly reading of Islamic law that the Quran prescribes no earthly punishment for apostasy. In the afterlife, yes, you’re going to have a tough time, but no earthly punishment. I think that’s an important statement, and to be quite frank, I have a slightly pragmatic attitude to this. Since I’m in no position to judge what is a correct reading, I favour the interpretation which makes being a Muslim more compatible with a free and open society.
What are some of the pitfalls you guard against?
I think there are two equal and opposite pitfalls. One is the essentialist fallacy, where you make a superficial reading of the holy texts and say, “So the essential message of Hinduism is this…” The opposite danger is what I called raisin picking, where you just take out a few choice quotations that fit comfortably with your liberal convictions. That won’t do either. In other words, we have to have a real interpretation, which sets up some proper historical and literary context on which to build.
In the Anglican church, for instance, there is a General Synod that decides the extent to which the church adapts to modern times. In Buddhism, the decision to allow women into the clergy was made through democratic means when the Buddha’s resistance was overruled by the members of the sangha. How important is the exercise of the followers of a religion democratically deciding the interpretation of its foundational texts, rather than one man — and it generally is a man — making pronouncements?
This, I think, is a question of authority or representation. Who speaks for Catholicism or Islam? It is a complicated question, because people like to say Islam needs its reformation. And Islam can’t have its reformation because it has no central authority. So that makes the matter actually more difficult, paradoxically. It’s easier if you have a clear structure of authority, even if it is undemocratic, to make the reformation. On the other hand, in Shia Islam, it’s fascinating to see the marketplace of ideas between competing Grand Ayatollahs, which is not a democracy, but it’s certainly pluralism. So, I would say that a centralised authority and a decentralised free-for- all each have their advantages and disadvantages. By the way, even in the Catholic church, which clearly is the largest single centralised authority in religious history and is certainly not democratic, many people will disagree with what Pope Benedict XVI says as the last word on their religion.
Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a regular columnist with The Guardian