THE TROUBLE WITH RELIGION - Wherever religions get into society?s driving seat, tyranny results
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- Published 20.03.05
|Exception to European secularism|
I never thought of myself as a writer about religion until a religion came after me. Religion was a part of my subject, of course ? for a novelist from the Indian subcontinent, how could it not have been? But in my opinion I also had many other, larger, tastier fish to fry. Nevertheless, when the attack came, I had to confront what was confronting me, and to decide what I wanted to stand up for in the face of what so vociferously, repressively and violently stood against me.
Now, 16 years later, religion is coming after us all and, even though most of us probably feel, as I once did, that we have other, more important concerns, we are all going to have to confront the challenge. If we fail, this particular fish may end up frying us.
For those of us who grew up in India in the aftermath of the Partition riots of 1946-1947, following the creation of the independent states of India and Pakistan, the shadow of that slaughter has remained as a dreadful warning of what men will do in the name of God. And there have been too many recurrences of such violence in India ? in Meerut, in Assam and most recently in Gujarat. European history, too, is littered with proofs of the dangers of politicized religion: the French Wars of Religion, the bitter Irish troubles, the ?Catholic nationalism? of the Spanish dictator Franco and the rival armies in the English Civil War going into battle, both singing the same hymns.
People have always turned to religion for the answers to the two great questions of life: Where did we come from? and how shall we live? But on the question of origins, all religions are simply wrong. The universe wasn?t created in six days by a superforce that rested on the seventh. Nor was it churned into being by a sky god with a giant churn. And on the social question, the simple truth is that, wherever religions get into society?s driving seat, tyranny results. The Inquisition results, or the taliban.
And yet religions continue to insist that they provide special access to ethical truths, and consequently deserve special treatment and protection. And they continue to emerge from the world of private life ? where they belong, like so many other things that are acceptable when done in private between consenting adults but unacceptable in the town square ? and to bid for power. The emergence of radical Islam needs no redescription here, but the resurgence of faith is a larger subject than that.
In today?s United States, it?s possible for almost anyone ? women, gays, African-Americans, Jews ? to run for, and be elected to, high office. But a professed atheist wouldn?t stand a popcorn?s chance in Hell. Hence the increasingly sanctimonious quality of so much American political discourse: the current president, according to Bob Woodward, sees himself as a ?messenger? doing ?the Lord?s will?, and ?moral values? has become a code phrase for old-fashioned, anti-gay, anti-abortion bigotry. The defeated Democrats also seem to be scurrying toward this kind of low ground, perhaps despairing of ever winning an election any other way.
According to Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission, ?The clash between those who believe and those who don?t believe will be a dominant aspect of relations between the US and Europe in the coming years.?
In Europe the bombing of a railway station in Madrid and the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh are being seen as warnings that the secular principles that underlie any humanist democracy need to be defended and reinforced. Even before these atrocities occurred, the French decision to ban religious attire such as Islamic headscarves had the support of the entire political spectrum. Islamist demands for segregated classes and prayer breaks were also rejected. Few Europeans today call themselves religious ? only 21 per cent, according to a recent European Values Study, as opposed to 59 per cent of Americans, according to the Pew Forum. In Europe the Enlightenment represented an escape from the power of religion to place limiting points on thought, while in America it represented an escape into the religious freedom of the New World ? a move toward faith, rather than away from it. Many Europeans now view the American combination of religion and nationalism as frightening.
The exception to European secularism can be found in Britain, or at least in the government of the devoutly Christian, increasingly authoritarian Tony Blair, which is now trying to steamroller Parliament into passing a law against ?incitement to religious hatred? in a cynical vote-getting attempt to placate advocates for British Muslims, in whose eyes almost any critique of Islam is offensive. Journalists, lawyers and a long list of public figures have warned that this law will dramatically hinder free speech and fail to meet its objective ? that it would increase religious disturbances rather than diminish them. Blair?s government seems to view the whole subject of civil liberties with disdain: what do freedoms matter, hard won and long cherished though they may be, when set against the requirements of a government facing re-election?
And yet the Blairite policy of appeasement must be defeated. Perhaps the British House of Lords will do what the Commons failed to do, and send this bad law to the scrap heap. And, though this is more unlikely, maybe America?s Democrats will come to understand that in today?s 50/50 America they may actually have more to gain by standing up against the Christian Coalition and its fellow travellers, and refusing to let a Mel Gibson view of the world shape American social and political policy. If these things do not happen, if America and Britain allow religious faith to control and dominate public discourse, then the Western alliance will be placed under ever-increasing strain, and those other religionists, the ones against whom we?re supposed to be fighting, will have great cause to celebrate.
Victor Hugo wrote, ?There is in every village a torch: the schoolmaster ? and an extinguisher: the parson.? We need more teachers and fewer priests in our lives because, as James Joyce once said, ?There is no heresy or no philosophy which is so abhorrent to the church as a human being.? But perhaps the great American lawyer Clarence Darrow put the secularist argument best of all. ?I don?t believe in God,? he said, ?because I don?t believe in Mother Goose.?