Friday, June 23, 2006

Polemic on the Fatal Mix of Politics and Religion

My father fought in the War, so did my wife’s father, and his brother died in it. My grandfathers fought in the previous War. I am talking about World Wars One and Two.

Contention: They fought to save us from fascism and militarism. But both ideologies are on their way back. Anti-freedom. In the guise of fundamentalist religion, most obviously and dangerously Islamic, but also, more insidiously and no less dangerously, Christian (because Christian fundamentalists arguably now control the most powerful state in history).

While religion of all forms is to be respected, nothing that denies both life and reason should form the basis of society. Twisted forms of the Christian and Islamic religions do just that.

It is reason that has created history’s most successful societies; and life is all we know for sure that we have (these are secular statements, but let it ride for the moment).

The successful societies that I am talking about are the liberal democracies of the west. The western democracies were created by reason, not religion. They fought for their survival through two world wars, they evolved in a difficult and slow process over three hundred years. And they work. Perhaps the finest creation of the European Enlightenment, the USA, now seems, to much of the world, like a gathering force that could destroy the gains of the Enlightenment. I wonder, I wonder, what the American dead on the beaches of the Pacific and the fields of France would say to that?

It is a question of freedom. Your freedom. Do you want imposed on you a specific set of (usually sexual) morals that reflect the norms of a desert tribe in the Middle East 2,500 years ago (with an overlay of late Roman Empire insecurity)? You ought to have no problem with any person who wishes to live by those morals, but you ought to rise in furious outrage when that person imposes them upon you. And of course its not just morals, it is a whole set of practises laid upon us by those ancient, ignorant, desert tribes.

The real Christian fundamentalists, the ones I could respect, would cut through all that, cut through all the obviously metaphorical stuff in the Bible, and read what Christ actually said (remember that bit about turning the other cheek?). Stick to that and they probably can’t go too far wrong. I acknowledge that the bit about a wealthy man’s chances of entering the Kingdom of Heaven being the same as those of a camel passing through the eye of a needle may need thought, especially in America. Funny how those wealthy televangelists, and their wealthy flock, take every statement in the Bible literally except that one.

Instead, the Christian fundamentalists of the USA (admittedly I am talking about the really crazy ones here) focus on the wild metaphorical stuff at the end of the New Testament. Which turns them into supporters of Israel (I am not saying there is anything wrong with that per se) because some interpretation leads them to believe that when Greater Israel is formed the world will come to an end and the righteous (guess who) will inherit what’s left.

Mankind has an infinite capacity for self-delusion.

My own feeling is that we are lost and fearful creatures, huddling close to each other and to the thoughts of our ancestors, because of the awful reality of death.

Personally, my favourite form of religion is a mild, humanistic and somewhat hypocritical Anglican-style Christianity (tea and cakes on Sunday), that means just a little bit to a great many people and a lot to only a very few, and that supplies two important things – a set of literary, metaphorical and cultural concepts that are familiar to everyone, and the comforting notion, even among the least ‘pious’, that there is life after death.

Of course this is just a fantasy, belonging to a bygone world.

But let us return to freedom. Personal freedom. If an action of yours harms no-one, no-one at all, then why should you answer to a government, or to some crumpled bureaucrat, or to any authority? The essence, the very essential, of religious rule (it does not matter what religion) is that someone, somewhere, is telling you what to do, and what not to do, in the most personal and intimate aspects of your life. This is the opposite of freedom.

So now tell me, how can the land of the free and the home of the brave be telling us that that is our future? Is this brave? Is it free?

Reason, if we follow our reason, would tell us to design a country almost exactly like the USA. A great country, that has given more freedom, to more people, for a longer period, than any other political entity in history.
The USA is now, it seems, dominated by ideologues and religious fanatics. That surely overstates the case, but one hears and fears the worst (particularly if you are, as I am, a deep admirer of the USA). Certainly that is the perception of the rest of the world. Where do we go when the most successful creation of the age of Enlightenment, the USA, becomes a theocracy? Do we all gird our loins for a ‘crusade’ against Islam? Do we acknowledge as a horrible but unavoidable fact that people are being killed daily in Baghdad but focus on the really pressing issue, that of gay marriage? Or do we stare closely into the eyes of our American friends and ask them, please, to take their country back?


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