The 12 Op-Eds of Xmas (Day 10)

Throughout the festive season, LDV is offering our readers a load of repeats another chance to read the 12 most popular opinion articles which appeared on the blog during 2008. The third most popular opinion article was by our resident secularist Laurence Boyce, and appeared on LDV on 14th January…

Et tu, James?

Recently, James Graham has called me a bigot on Lib Dem Voice. (gasp!) As James is a blogger whom I admire and respect – blogger of the year no less – I have been stung into writing a riposte to this scurrilous charge. It was in the context of yet another debate on religion and the problem of Islam, that James essentially accused me of tarring all religious believers with the same brush. According to the big man, “religions are ultimately what you make of them.” When pressed as to whether Marxism, say, is also ultimately what you make of it, James replied, “I would have thought that is self-evident.” Excuse me?

Let us get one thing straight: Marxism is not simply what you might choose to make of it. While the task of nailing down the principles of Marxism might not be entirely trivial, we can nevertheless be clear in the main about what Marxism does and does not entail. For instance, it is surely uncontroversial to assert that Marxism comprises a belief in the common ownership of property and the means of production (a terrible idea by the way). Now I suppose there is nothing to stop somebody from saying, “I’m a Marxist, though I don’t believe in the common ownership of property and the means of production.” But on the whole, I prefer the simpler, “I’m not a Marxist.” It’s brief and to the point, and has the compelling advantage of not stretching the meaning of words beyond the bounds of reason.

Likewise, we can be clear about what religious belief entails, and what its consequences might be. And yet whenever I assert that the claims of religion are false, I know that I am bound to be met with the stunning insight that there is no homogenous object called “religion,” that religion comprises many different strands and styles of belief (no shit Sherlock!), and that I am therefore making a sweeping, and indeed bigoted, generalisation. I am not. Having been raised a Catholic, and having observed religion in its many forms, I think I know roughly what the deal is, and it is this: That there exists a supernatural deity who exerts a causal influence upon the natural world though scripture, prophets, prayer, and miracles. He wishes us to praise him, obey him, and love him unceasingly. Essentially, this life is a test. If we get it right, then he will reward us in Heaven. Otherwise… you know what to expect.

This, I submit, is a reasonable definition of monotheistic religion which pretty much covers the faiths that are causing all the trouble at the present moment. Too broad a definition to be useful maybe? Not at all. Already we see some disturbing elements: Why, for instance, does God require constant praise and worship, more reminiscent of Stalin than of a “loving father”? Then there is the obvious scope for abuse when one is claiming to be in possession of a divine and unalterable revelation. Finally, there is the belief in an afterlife – the killer doctrine that, whichever way you cut it, has the effect of utterly diminishing the value of life on earth. And yet for some reason we continue to allow these simple tenets of faith, now largely debunked by science and philosophy, to impose their terrible burden upon humanity.

Why is it so hard for us to speak plainly about the absurdity of religious belief? Why is Nick Clegg already brown-nosing faith groups when he is barely out of the traps? Why is it quite beyond any of our politicians to draw a connection between belief in the “afterlife” and the practice of suicide bombing? Why, when the terrorists are patiently articulating their theology on homemade videos, do we search desperately for the “root causes” in order to exonerate the role of faith? Why are we constantly being assured that “Islam is a religion of peace,” when a cursory inspection of the Koran tells a completely different story? Why do we stay silent when millions of women worldwide suffer under the yoke of clerical oppression? Why are we still fiddling while the Middle East burns?

And why, in the face of all this carnage, do we imagine that an acceptable response is simply to water down the beliefs a bit and call ourselves “moderates”? Think how this might work in the political context. Suppose that the Liberal Democrat election manifesto contained a proposal to the effect that homosexuals should be put to death (as the Bible clearly stipulates in Leviticus 20:13). What would be an adequate restitution for allowing this hateful line into party policy? How about a spot of artful sophistry to patch things up? “Look, you really mustn’t take the manifesto so literally you know. It’s the interpretation which matters more than the actual words. Ultimately, it’s what you make of the policy that counts.” Happy now? In fact, nothing less than a total recantation would do, in the bid to salvage a political reputation which would in all likelihood be damaged beyond repair.

So please, at least on this occasion, spare me the mealy-mouthed justifications: that not all Christians take the Bible literally; that jihad is really about personal fulfilment, not the subjugation of infidels; that the struggle over the “Holy Land” has nothing to do with religion (there’s a clue in the name if you look closely); that it is important to distinguish between nice Christians, and nasty Christians; nice Muslims, and nasty Muslims; (and presumably nice Nazis, and nasty Nazis?) I’ve heard it all before, and frankly I’m not impressed. I know that you are nice – hey, some of my best friends are Christians! But your religious “moderation” – at once intellectually and theologically bankrupt – serves only (in the words of Sam Harris) to “provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.”

So my message to religious fundamentalists is … not a lot. There’s really no point in talking to you. To my nice moderate Christian friends: I beg you to find some honesty before the Armageddon so longed for by the aforementioned fruitcakes finally comes to pass. And to James, I say: Marxism is not just what you make of it, neither is religion, and calling a spade a donkey buys us precisely nothing.

* Laurence Boyce is a Lib Dem member and occasional contributor to Lib Dem Voice.

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