Flaws of faith

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  • Elsewhere


    Flaws of faith

    As religion insinuates its way into public life, secularists must unite to fight hellfire with logic

    David Aaronovitch, columnist of the year Sunday September 26, 2004

    The Observer

    You can't even insult Catholicism any more. Last Thursday, Stuart Murphy, the controller of BBC3, took the decision not to show Popetown, a cartoon series set in the Vatican and featuring an infantile pontiff, celebrity-hungry nuns and venal cardinals (now there's an original thought). Having seen the series, he felt its comic virtues failed to 'outweigh the potential offence it will cause'. So it was either unfunny or offensive - and he only knew when he saw the final product.

    Oh yes? The MD of the production company which made Popetown suggested another explanation. 'I understand the world has changed since the series was originally commissioned,' he said, 'and sympathise with the difficult decision the BBC has had to make.'

    But what, exactly, had changed? Well, there had been an outcry. In the words of the Bishop of Portsmouth: 'Any attempt to belittle or diminish [the Pope's] status as the leader of the Catholic church is totally unacceptable and not only to Catholics.' Clifford Longley, a well-respected religious writer, argued on the Today programme: 'If you insult the leadership of the Catholic church like this, you insult all Catholics, including the six million who live in the UK, and you hold them up for public hatred, ridicule and contempt.'

    It may be that Mr Murphy was anticipating his future prosecution under the proposed legislation to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. I would prefer to think that he was acting out of good manners and a belated recognition that Catholicism seems to have attracted all the opprobrium that people dare not heap upon Islam or Judaism. In general, religion has, for some time, occupied a kind of middle ground on the scale between political belief (entirely voluntary and completely open to criticism) and race (entirely involuntary and a completely invalid basis for criticism).

    I won't miss Popetown. But the phrase 'the world has changed' bothers me, not least because I have seen and heard it several times in recent weeks, when applied to the question of faith.

    One of these occasions was in a recent magazine attack on atheism, written by Alister McGrath, professor of historical theology at Oxford University. The militant non-belief in God was, according to McGrath, in decline, 'greying, inhabiting a dying world'. This was mostly down to the collapse of communism, which had shown that atheism led to even worse abuses of human beings than religion (incidentally, McGrath contends that the Inquisition wasn't as bad as it was made out to be, a piece of revisionism that must wait for another column) and partly down to a postmodernism that permits anyone to believe just about anything. 'Postmodernity,' says the prof, 'has spawned postatheism.'

    I was coping with this thought when I got into a minor spat at a newspaper colloquium with a distinguished theologian, who is also a convert to Islam. In the middle of an answer to a question on human rights, he suddenly went off on one. Secularism, he said, gave no proper basis for ideas of morality. It was an emptiness, a void filled only by opinion. This was why the Human Rights Charter of the United Nations would always be deficient. True morality, true purpose, could only arise out of a transcendent faith, where God made the judgment.

    Atheism and secularism are not the same thing. You can have secular Muslims and secular Jews. Atheism is about the rejection of transcendence; secularism is about holding the ring in the face of competing beliefs, most of which claim to be the word of God or the truth about humanity. My secularism is more important than my atheism and binds me with those who have faith and those who have none. But it may be true that both are under pressure. Here, in secular Britain, where the Church of England has turned religion into a series of mild-mannered social events, we have felt safe. Just the occasional Jehovah's Witness to see off and the slightly odd feeling when an a religious friend suddenly invents a history of piety in order to get Tamsin into the Sacred Heart.

    Now, strange things seem to be going on. Like the wholesale expansion of faith schools. Like the routine conflation of the religion of Islam with the disparate communities which come from countries where Islam is dominant.

    It's something else, too. Religious community is the most all-embracing community that many people have. Even for media Christians, there's the priest who counsels Mrs Soprano, and the vicar in The Archers. They come round, they listen, they act as spiritual aromatherapists. The alternative seems to be nothing. And when there's an aesthetic as appealing as that of Islam, it seems to offer a great deal.

    For the atheist, this is all wrong. We shouldn't need God to get together or to make us behave well towards each other. This being the only time we have, and our fellow creatures (past, present and future) being all there is and has been, how we act now is everything. Even so, it seems impolite and unnecessary to tell a practising Jew that I set her faith absolutely no higher than the voodoo of Haiti or the idol-worship of the poor old Philistines.

    The problem for the secularist is that the believer does set her faith higher. Jesus is the son of God; Mohammed is his prophet; Ye shall have no other God but me. This sets a culturally specific and transcendent law which is, by its nature, both unnegotiable and possibly tyrannical. Who says so? God says so. Who says God says so? I do. Extreme (or fundamentalist) believers differ from their more moderate coreligionists in the lack of discussion and debate they need before deciding what the word of God actually is.

    To see just how divisive this merging of culturally specific forms with divine provenance can be, you only have to look at the recent history of ecumenism. What is the essential difference between the Catholic church and the Church of England? Almost none. Same deity, same prophet, same everything, except minor aspects of ritual and hierarchy. And here, with what has helped to stall that progress, we get right down to it. When the Muslim theologian was asked to give an example of where the secular concept of human rights might be seen as deficient by other societies, his immediate answer was: 'Women's rights.'

    Did secularists not understand, he asked, that there were cultures in which women did not want equal rights? 'How do you know what they want?' I snapped at him. 'Have you polled them?' After all, if you don't want rights, no one can force you to exercise them. It's your right.

    And this, it seems to me, is what it always boils down to. Ann Widdecombe, who left the C of E over the ordination of women, considers herself entitled to preach everywhere, except in a place of worship. There can be no woman Pope or woman Dalai Lama. There are no female imams. Only men wear the skullcap in Judaism, while orthodox women must shave their heads, wear wigs and sit upstairs in the synagogue.

    Why is it that when God speaks through man, he so resolutely demands that women are subordinate? And please, don't try my patience with the old 'equal but different' dodge. It is extraordinary how mainstream religions devote themselves to the unequal restraint of women, this restraint acting as the glue that holds their cultures together.

    It is time, as religion begins its comeback, for secularists to fight back. Not with bans, which, allowing for French cultural difference, seem to me to be an act of panic, but with strong arguments and stronger alternatives.

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