by David Fairhurst
from Signs of the Times No. 17 - Apr 2005

As one late January morning I gazed at the awesome temple at Hagar Qim1 near the South West coast of Malta and shortly afterwards entered the temple itself, more and more questions began to flood into my mind. 

Built about 5000 years ago (more than 1000 years before the pyramids), using gigantic stone blocks for its construction, the temple at Hagar Qim was first excavated by archaeologists in 1839.

'Hagar Qim' means 'standing stones', which was all that could be seen  until the mound on which they stood was excavated. The temple is built of limestone rock, some parts six metres high.  Inside is an impressive maze of corridors, chambers, niches and altars, all carved out of stone using flint. On the morning of the summer solstice, sunlight passes through a hole known as the 'oracle hole' and fills the apse of the temple.

Among the many troubling questions that came into my mind were the following:

  1. Who or what did the people who lived at that time worship in this and other nearby temples?
    Enquires of the Museum of Archaeology suggested one possible but unconfirmed answer - that the temples were expressions of a fertility worshipping religion. A number of carved obese female figures uncovered at Hagar Qim and several similar temple sites may possibly represent Mother Earth emphasising the productivity of the land and human reproduction.
  2. Why did the society that lived in this part of Malta for 3000 years and which was responsible for building the temples suddenly disappear between 2500 and 1800 BC?
  3. How many thousands of different belief systems have people in all the many diverse cultures and communities all over the world followed over the 5000 years or more since the Hagar Qim and similar temples were constructed?
    To take but one example, we might think of the native Indians of North America who worshipped the forests, the seas and the killer whale and who lived in harmony with the natural environment and peacefully with one another. Have we not in contemporary Western nominally Christian societies much to learn from such religions?
  4. Is it reasonable for us to assert that of all the thousands of religions that have served people of many diverse cultures at different stages of economic and social development, the religion that we hold (Christianity) is superior? Or does reason have no part to play in thinking about religious faith?
  5. If not what criteria can be used to evaluate any one belief system against any other?
  6. Why is my religion truer than all the others?
  7. Do we have the right, some would say the duty, to try to persuade people of other religions and living in other cultures that what we believe is the truth?

A few days after my visit to the temple at Hagar Qim I came across an article by George Soros in The Times of Malta (7 Feb 05) in which he presented a critical appraisal of President Bush's second inaugural address. In his address President Bush sets out an ambitious vision of the role of the U.S. in advancing the cause of freedom worldwide by supporting democratic movements and institutes in every nation and culture in support the ultimate goal of ending tyranny throughout the world.

While agreeing with these goals, Soros also expressed his concern that there was often a large gap between official words and deeds. For example, when Bush declared war on terror, he used that war to invade Iraq. When no link with Al Qaeda and no weapons of mass destruction were found, the Bush administration justified the invasion on the grounds that it would make Iraq more democratic.

To explain what is wrong with the Bush doctrine Soros invokes the concept of an Open Society, which he argues is the best guide to fostering freedom around the world. An open society is based on the recognition that nobody possesses the ultimate truth. To claim otherwise inevitably leads to repression.

Bush's re-election has enabled him to claim that the moment of accountability has passed and he is now ready to confront tyranny world-wide according to his own lights.

But the critical process which is at the core of an open society cannot be forsaken. The absence of self-criticism is what led the U.S. into the present Iraq quagmire.

In the days and weeks that followed my visit to the ancient temple in Malta I began to think more and more about George Soros' concept of an open society in which it is recognised that nobody possesses the ultimate truth, and its value as a tool for the critical analysis of contemporary societies.

I thought initially of many Islamic states where people were repressed and denied democratic institutions because those in power believed they had the absolute truth and through complex and subtle social processes were able to enforce their beliefs on their people in ways that may have been highly repressive and sometimes violent.

However, I reflected soon that it is not in Islamic societies that those in power claim that they possess the ultimate truth. Even in the U.S that presents itself to the world as the supreme example of the democratic society, the so - called 'religious right' which also claims to possess ultimate truth dominates American government at every level from the President himself downwards. Not only does 'the religious right' succeed in imposing its will on the American people, but also by shaping U.S. foreign policy on many non-U.S. citizens, always claiming moral justification derived from what they believe to be the ultimate truth.

So I began to reason that an open society in which it is recognised that nobody possesses ultimate truth would have much to commend it. It is this condition above all else that is the ultimate defender of freedom and the preventer of the cruel and ugly repressions that so many suffer as so many of the world's societies today.


Notes:

  1. 'Hagar Qim' means 'standing stones', which was all that could be seen until the mound on which they stood was excavated. The temple is built of limestone rock, some parts six metres high.  Inside is an impressive maze of corridors, chambers, niches and altars, all carved out of stone using flint. On the morning of the summer solstice, sunlight passes through a hole known as the 'oracle hole' and fills the apse of the temple.

David Fairhurst is a retired Economics lecturer and a strong advocate of inter-faith dialogue.