The Sunday Times
God save the heretic
October 23, 2005
Jonathan Swift observed that the problem with religion was that there wasn’t enough of it around: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” Three centuries on there is even less of it around and we still hate each other.
The difficulty, at least for the scientifically educated but spiritually malnourished, is not the idea of religion itself, meaning some system of ritualised worship that helps us to make sense, if only symbolically, of the human, natural and supernatural worlds. The difficulty is rather that all the religions on offer are so patently preposterous, if not downright unpleasant.
Judaism tells us in its most sacred text, the Torah, that a donkey once turned round and started an argument with its master (Numbers, chapter 22); and that the supreme creator took time out to instruct his chosen people not to carry dead badgers, pelicans, hoopoes or bats (Leviticus, chapter 11).
Christianity, while accepting these texts as sacred, further believes that God manifested himself on earth in the form of an excitable and frequently ill-tempered 1st-century Jewish rabbi called Joshua (“Jesus” in Greek) who disowned his family and believed that the world was soon going to end. How do we know Jesus was Jewish? Because he lived at home until he was 30 and his mother thought he was God.
Then there is Islam. Its followers believe that its sacred text, the Koran, is the word of Allah as dictated to his prophet Muhammad. Non-Muslims might regard Muhammad as a deluded and bellicose man who had far too many wives than was good for him. His private life as recorded in the Koran itself, for instance sura 66, is also rather surprising.
Buddhism is an increasingly popular choice for westerners these days with its distinctive mix of cowardice, escapism and self-absorption. Hinduism has always been the colourful and vibrant national religion of India, although under the guidance of that wicked imperialist power, the British raj, it did at last begin to accept that burning women alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres might not be such a good idea.
Shintoism, the national religion of Japan, venerated the emperor as a living god, at least until 1946 when Hirohito, under gentle pressure from the US army, admitted on the radio that he wasn’t really.
The emperor Vespasian’s last sardonic words, as he lay awaiting death and the posthumous deification bestowed on the Caesars, best put this religious belief into perspective: “I think I’m turning into a god.”
Some like to believe that primitive tribal religions were much nicer. Unfortunately many of them practised human sacrifice. When the British (wicked imperialist power, etc) captured the Ashanti capital of Kumasi in present-day Ghana, they found a grove of death where the ground was saturated with the blood of thousands of human victims.
This confirms one’s sense that whatever the truth about God, all religions without exception are fallible human creations, in parts beautiful and profound and in parts ridiculous and repellent. To protect them from criticism is bad for our society and, even more importantly, bad for our souls.
Enter new Labour with shining morning face, like some eager perfectibilian schoolboy, believing that with a few waves of its legislative wand it can banish cultural frictions and religious disagreements from the earth. Under the proposed Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, before the Lords this week, anyone found guilty of being “insulting or abusive” about any religion could face a prison sentence of up to seven years.
If the bill is passed then the kind of things I have written at the start of this article — to my mind, perfectly reasonable, evidentiary and legitimately discomforting things — could well land me in Wormwood Scrubs. It is astonishing that any modern democratic government should be even considering such a law. But then this comes from the people who brought us the similarly botched, ill-conceived and unenforceable Hunting Act only last year.
This is a blundering bluebottle of a bill, inanely buzzing around our heads, a colossal nuisance with no sign of intelligence behind it whatsoever. It should be squashed forthwith. To paraphrase Swift, there is already quite enough bossy and witless legislation around to make us hate each other and there will never be enough to make us love each other. For that we will need some new, humane, as yet unimaginable form of religion.
However, with our dominant ideology of “secular materialism” (for which read “shopping”), our fringe religious ideologies either vapid or dangerously fundamentalist, both hostile to outside criticism and incapable of self-criticism, and now new Labour’s outrageous attempts to frighten us from even discussing such essential matters openly, our chances of shaping some better religion for our modern selves, and consequently learning to love each other a little more than we have hitherto managed, seem remoter than ever.