26 February 2016: Professor Graham Ward is inaugural Comparative Religious Studies Speaker at Yale-NUS College

By Daryl Yang | Image by Jolene Lum

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As religious fundamentalism sweeps across the globe, Professor Graham Ward’s lecture at Yale-NUS College on the idea of conceptual idolatry is a timely and necessary one. On 17 February 2016, Professor Ward was at Yale-NUS College as a Comparative Religious Studies Speaker.

Professor Ward has been Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford since 2012. He is a priest of the Church of England and was formerly the Samuel Ferguson Professor of Philosophical Theology and Ethics and the Head of the School of Arts, Histories and Cultures at the University of Manchester.

In his speech, titled ‘Against Idolatry’, Professor Ward proposed the novel idea of conceptual idolatry to characterise the sociology and psychology of religious radicalisation and fundamentalism.

“A conceptual idol begins as a metaphor and then we become blind to the fact that it is a metaphor and take it for something more – hence it only deepens our ignorance rather than dispels it,” explained Professor Ward.

Extrapolating the idea of idol worship that is strictly, and sometimes violently, prohibited in the three Abrahamic religions, he discussed how beliefs and ideas are solidified into dogma that can neither be challenged nor examined.

Professor Ward utilised examples across disciplines, from Richard Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ in evolutionary biology to Biblical literalism to illustrate how conceptual idolatry arises from the lack of critical thinking and reflection. Systems of ideas become transformed into ideologies that admit no tolerance of complexity and other perspectives.

“All fundamentalisms are forms of conceptual idolatry: whether they are Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, Marxist or Neoliberal. Where a system lacks the capacity for reflection and critical engagement, then they constitute ideologies that are exercises in power and authority,” stated Professor Ward.

He then argued that the source of such tendencies towards conceptual idolatry can be found in the insecurities of individuals and communities. Asserting that religious teachings are lived first, then thought through, he posited that social insecurities manifest themselves in a destabilising social coherence. This creates an in/out group dichotomy that accounts for the cruel acts of violence and terrorism around the globe today.

Angela Ferguson, Class of 2018, who is currently taking a course on the politics of identity in developing countries, shared that she found the idea of conceptual idolatry especially striking.

“The discussion about fundamentalism and the driving forces behind it,” she explained, “was useful in understanding not only such movements today, but also the trends that may give rise to fundamentalist movements in the future.”

The lecture was hosted by Professor Gavin Flood, the inaugural Yap Kim Hao Professor of Comparative Religious Studies. Launched in March 2014, the Yap Kim Hao Professorship in Comparative Religious Studies is aimed at enhancing the academic study of religions at the College. Focusing on the diversity of religious beliefs, practices and experiences in today’s world, the study of Comparative Religious Studies is a crucial component of the global curriculum for the 21st century.

The professorship is named after Reverend Doctor Yap Kim Hao, former Vice-President of the Inter-Religious Organisation (Singapore) which has been actively promoting inter-faith dialogue and understanding in Singapore since 1949. Rev Dr Yap is also the Convenor of Singapore Interfaith Network on AIDS and Pastoral Advisor of Free Community Church, Singapore. The first Asian bishop of the Methodist Church in Singapore and Malaysia, Rev Dr Yap has retired from full-time Christian ministry but continues to advocate the universal need to respect religious diversity, engage in dialogue and work together with people of diverse backgrounds.

Watch Professor Ward’s lecture ‘Against Idolatry’ here.