Monday, 26 February 2007


The broadsheets, as always nowadays, are dripping with articles about religion. In today’s Times that crusty old Catholic William Rees-Mogg predictably argues that we need more religion, not less, and that orthodox Christian doctrine has always been opposed to slavery and the champion of liberty and equality. If he believes that, he’ll believe anything. In the Telegraph Boris Johnson, who I would have expected to have more sense, argues that allowing Turkey into the European Union will improve the chances of Islam and the West settling down together as one big happy family.

The most mind-boggling piece of obfuscation, though, is to be found – as one would wearily expect, in that erstwhile bastion of liberal good sense, The Guardian. The writer, Stuart Jeffries, has been trotting around various religious and non-religious informants and has made the astonishing discovery – surprise, surprise! – that the root of the trouble is not religion itself, or disbelief, but the increasingly popular and vociferous fundamentalist varieties of each.

According to the Anglican Dean of Southwark, Colin Slee, there is not just a two-sided divide, but a three-cornered one – religious fundamentalists in one corner [boo], fundamentalist secularists in another [boo], and “intelligent, thinking liberals of Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, Baptism, Methodism, other faiths” [interestingly enough, Islam isn’t mentioned in this category] “and, indeed, thinking atheists, in the other corner." In Slee’s book non-thinking atheists include those such as Richard Dawkins and A.C. Grayling who, he fatuously maintains, “are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the West Bank and the anti-gay bigots of the Church of England”. [Again, he doesn’t mention Islam].

This is news to me: I hadn’t noticed Dawkins or Grayling igniting any bombs anywhere, except verbal ones which are obviously making their religious targets wriggle. I wonder how many of Dawkins’ critics have actually read The God Delusion? Far from being an intemperate rant, as they like to pretend, it is in fact a closely argued and generally good tempered polemic which requires reasoned refutation [if that is possible] and not mere mindless abuse.

A Muslim witness, Azzim Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought, says the problem with secular fundamentalists is that they believe they have the absolute truth. “That means you have no room to talk to others so you end up having a physical fight. They want to close the door and ignore religion, but this will provoke a violent religiosity. If someone seeks to deny my existence” – which he curiously seems to equate with his religion – “I will fight to assert it.” It does not seem to occur to this gentleman that this is exactly how non-Muslims – and not just non-religious ones – feel about the incessant clamour being mounted by his co-religionists to impose more and more of their beliefs and practices on the rest of us, with the ultimate object of denying our right to make our own life-choices and coercing us to submit to Islam.

The liberal Jewish rabbi, Julia Neuberger, also follows the same fallacious line about sceptics. “What I find really distasteful is not just the tone of their rhetoric, but their lack of doubt”, she says. “No scientific method says that there is no doubt. If you don’t accept there’s doubt in all things, you’re being intellectually dishonest.” Tell that to Islam! To an outsider always on the lookout for those mysteriously silent “Moderate Muslims”, this religion is characterised by a total lack of contingent doubt and a totalitarian cast of mind. And Dr Neuberger surely doesn’t believe that most rational people doubt that the sun rose this morning in the East, and not in the West. Or does she live in a perpetual haze of uncertainty about the obvious?

The nub of this ongoing row, of course, is that those who live their lives by faith in a supernatural being regard these notions as “sacred” and wish to ring-fence them from rational discussion. Sceptics – atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists – by contrast, consider all opinions and beliefs should be open to debate and susceptible of scientific proof. Disbelief is NOT a dogma, but a suspension of belief in the absence of convincing evidence that the “supernatural” exists. Despite thousands of years of high-flown religious claims, the existence of a god, or gods, has not been convincingly demonstrated to anyone who doesn’t already have faith in the concept. To a non-believer, the notion of a god such as Jews, Christians and Muslims contemplate is incredible and self-contradictory: if any god does exist, he, she or it is most certainly not both all-powerful and all-benevolent.

What is ultimately at stake is the survival of pluralist, tolerant democracy. This will only be safeguarded if the presently growing influence of religion in public affairs is diminished and denied any privileged position in policymaking and above all in education. It should be the responsibility of the state to ensure that education is rational and non-sectarian, and no longer the plaything of religious factions whether Christian, Islamic, or any other.


1loneranger said...
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1loneranger said...

Wonderful commentary anticant. Colin Slee gives Manuel de Falla's 'El sombrero de tres picos' a whole new meaning for me. ;)

1loneranger said...
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Richard W. Symonds said...

You're very angry towards 'religious' people, aren't you AC ?

I sense such people would be excluded from your tolerant, pluralist utopia...

Jose said...

What I see here, again, is the use of religions, and as you point out, Anticant, it seems they are now pitting the rest of religions against Islam.

Religions should be left out politics altogether.

anticant said...

The removals were because of a double post.

RICHARD: I am not merely angry - I am filled with disgust and contempt. I resent having my old age bedevilled and made uneasy by these rubbish-peddlers.

I don't believe in utopias, but you are quite right that such folk should have no place in a tolerant, decent society. Can't you see that they are utterly irrational, totalitarian-minded people whose only aim is to dominate? No-one who isn't bereft of their senses should tolerate the intolerant, or respect the disreputable.

JOSE: No, it isn't "other religions versus Islam", it's "all religions - including Islam - against the non-religious". Yet again, may I ask you to comprehend that there is NO SUCH THING as religion outside politics. That notion is moonshine. Religion is political activity conducted with "supernatural" rhetoric designed to give it greater punching power.

Richard W. Symonds said...

The trouble is, AC, secular politics is a kind of 'religion'...just look at some of the extreme Capitalist and Communist idealogical fanatics - they kill in cold blood to ensure their secular political system maintains (and expands) its power - often leaving their 'security services' (or 'offshoots') to do their proxy killings.

Sorry, AC, but you come across surprisingly 'blinkered' on this one.

For me, I'm shit scared of any effing nutter who is prepared to torture and kill me because I don't subscribe to their effing system - whether it be political, religious, or both.

anticant said...

I leave it to our readers [if any] to decide who is the most blinkered over this, Richard. I never said that ONLY religious fanatics are a menace to others - any cold-blooded killers, on behalf of whatever cause, are anti-human in my book. I wish you would read what I actually do - and don't - say more carefully.

But most of the global killing going on today is connected with religious feuds. Correct? Religion isn't doing much to damp down violence. Correct?

Incidentally, surely you understand that as a gay man I don't take kindly to a religion whose "moderate" preachers say I should be thrown off tall buildings, stoned to death, or have my throat cut?

Richard W. Symonds said...

You say : "Religion isn't doing much to damp down violence. Correct? "

I say : Incorrect. A strong case could be made that if certain religions didn't exist, the human species would have wiped itself out long ago.

anticant said...

I'm not talking about history, I'm talking about now. And theistic religions. Point me to some really constructive peace initiatives from any of them, apart from the usual ineffective verbal waffle.

Buddhism, Confucianism, and other non-theistic [mostly Eastern] philosophies are much more creative and benign. But even Buddhism has had its nastily aggressive moments recently.

The issue is between power-hungry creeds [religious or materialist] and tolerant live-and-let-live pragmatism. The latter is not to blame for the awful mess the world is in. It is, in fact, the only slim remaining hope for betterment.

Jose said...

You'll no doubt permit me to disagree, Anticant.

Religions have existed since man has had memory to record them. They existed in primitives and they exist today. The difference lies on the fact that primitives did not use them, while our contemporaries do.

Religion existed because of fear to the unknown - at least that is what some psychologists have said - and I believe they exist now because man, in continuous pursuit of truth, has not been able to find any other solution to the enigmas that he has been trying to solve. Scientists believe they have and, consequently, use their theoretical findings to give an explanation which is not - at least to me - convincing. In actual fact there is no difference between primitives and contemporaries what religions have meant to them.

The worst part of a religion is when it has been organised which is when it starts to be used politically, because as happens with political parties the numbers in their affiliations determine their power.

And when they - religions and political parties - intermingle then we find the eerie scenario where neither the former are religions nor the latter are political parties. Each one decaffs the other, but both organisations always pursue the achievement of power. They do not mind if this power is shared between the two, they already try to superimpose the other since the very moment of that strange inception. Very human, indeed.

I insist belief is an individual trait, and I am sure not one member of any religion believes exactly what his neighbour sitting next to him on the same pew does.

I have seen many devouts of St. Teresa, of St.Anthony, of St. Nicholas, of St. Peter, etc, in my life to think that these beliefs make disappear what must be the main one: belief in God.

There are even people who forget God and revere the Virgin Mary.

anticant said...

The calculations of the numbers of their adherents provided by religions are as mythical as the gods they worship. As so often, it is a case of tiny tails wagging huge dogs. It's all done with mirrors. How many of even those Catholics who count themselves as believers actually take much notice of what the Pope says?

Aphra Behn said...

Synchronicity. It's the zeitgeist.

I'd been going to ask if you included Buddhism in your statement about religion and politics, Anticant, and it seems that you do. Interesting. I don't think your argument holds up as well there, though China is certainly political in its response to Tibetan Buddhism.

I would argue, have argued, will argue again, that the really bad religions are the monotheisms beause they give us Great Big Clear Instructions about what is Right and Wrong. This is the true nature of fundamentalism. One sees it in some scientists too, and that is when science slips into a fundamentalism of its own.


Jose said...

And, Anticant, I very much doubt that the figure Christians give of 1,1 billion plus of adherents the world over has ever been a fact.

Who dares count them? LOL.

anticant said...

Or the alleged 3.2 billion Muslims worldwide?

Aphra, I agree with you that it is the monotheistic religions which are the very devil. I know that Buddhists have priests, temples, and different traditions, but Buddhist teachings are atheistic philosophy - not a religion, really. Ditto Confucianism. Hinduism, with its multiplicity of gods - some of then as nasty as Jehovah and Allah - ia another kettle of fish. But we in the West can learn a great deal from all of them.