Former Prime Minister Tony Blair had a fascinating piece in Sunday's Observer in which he argues that the wars of the 20th century were largely fought over political ideology but that the wars of the 21st will be religious. His solution? We must educate people to be more tolerant.
In particular he sees his own foundation as playing a key role. It is a simple point that will resonate with many people. And yet like all simplistic views it is shot through with dangers. Let me list some of them.
1) Although Blair speaks of 'religious extremism being a perversion of faith', he is not precise and clear enough in his language. Indeed the danger is that his language will help fuel the kind of intolerance and extremism that he wants to prevent. Why? Because he fails to define what he means by religious violence and also 'extremism'.
The trouble is that he lumps all religions together because he does not want to speak about the elephant in the room. What do Syria, Libya, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Russia, Central Asia, and the Philippines all have in common? Islam. It is right of course to point out that many Muslims do not support extremist violence, but it is wrong to lump all religions together as Mr Blair does.
'Kill the apostate' is very different from 'love your enemies'. Often when I debate with the more extremist militant atheist secularists, I hear statements like 'atheists don't fly planes into buildings'! As though this was some kind of killer point. The response should be obvious. Neither do Presbyterians, Catholics or even Southern Baptists! By lumping all religions together Blair gives a false picture. And a dangerously false picture because it fuels the 'all religion is the cause of evil' narrative of the current liberal zeitgeist.
2) He also does not define adequately what religious extremism is. The trouble is in the use of words. One man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. Blair thinks the key is tolerance. Tolerance towards those who are different and against closed-minded intolerance. But again he fails to see the problem. Western liberal society is only tolerant to those who accept its values and pre-suppositions. As we are increasingly replacing the moral authority of Christianity with the absolute values of the secular state we are finding that anyone who does not buy into the self styled liberal values of the elites is in danger of being ostracised.
Labelling people intolerant is one way of ensuring that unacceptable views will not be tolerated. Take for example the recent declaration of Governor Cuomo who declared that 'extreme conservatives had no place in the State of New York". But who are extreme conservatives? According to Governor Cuomo, those who are pro-life and pro traditional marriage! Many times I have been labelled a religious extremist just because I believe the Bible. There are those who argue that I should not be allowed near the media, and certainly children should be kept away from such a 'religious extremist'!
Blair by not being more specific just feeds that prejudice. When he lumps together, or at least fails to distinguish between, someone who thinks it is ok to kill apostates from Islam and someone who believes that killing babies in the womb is wrong, he has passed the boundaries of rationality. Is it impossible to imagine that the day will come, when in the name of tolerance the State will not tolerate those of us who teach the Bible?
3) Tony Blair is also too simplistic. It is undoubtedly true that what he calls the 'perversion of faith' is a cause and an expression of great evil. But there are many other causes as well. Sex, money, personality, power, lust, oil, water, revenge, greed, stupidity and pride are things I would factor into what causes wars - as well as religion. The trouble is that by identifying religion as the major cause Mr Blair not only lets himself and others off the hook, he provides a simplistic narrative that will cause frustration and not deal with the root issues.
For example the new social global order which encourages the majority of wealth to be concentrated in the hands of a very few is surely as responsible for the disaffection of the poor, as religion can be an expression of it. In the same newspaper in which Blair wrote his article, there was another story about how the world billionaires are buying yachts with helipads, tennis courts and missile defence systems. Perhaps if Mr Blair concentrated his efforts on seeking greater economic justice in the world, he would not need to take the money of the rich in order to 'educate' the poor to avoid extremism?
4) Tony Blair is himself an extremist. He has far too much faith in his own ability and goodness. He led the UK into a war based on a lie and on his own faith. Not his Christian faith but his belief that all we had to do was get rid of the bad guy (Saddam) and then the Iraqi people would just want to be like a Western liberal democracy. It's that same faith that caused the Western media to rejoice in the Arab Spring as secular dictatorships (once supported by the West as a bulwark against communism) were replaced by 'the people'. Except the 'people' often supported the very 'extremists' that Mr Blair wants to protect us from.
The world is far more complex than the simplistic philosophy and theology of Tony Blair would suggest. And, as the Iraq war demonstrated, that philosophy can do almost as much harm as extremist religious talk. Just ask the millions of Christians in the Middle East who are now facing a greater persecution than they have done for many years, precisely because of the faith of Mr Blair.
Where I do agree with Tony Blair though is that we do need education and knowledge in order to make us a more compassionate and tolerant society. We don't need a dose of bourgeois moralism, telling us all to be nice and tolerant and just accept our lot in society. We need the Good news of Jesus Christ – who came to deliver us from our sins and enable us to live in a manner that is worthy of Him. Our society needs the radical salt and light of Christ's people, not the simplistic banalities of the Blair foundation.