Tuesday, 26 August 2008


It's hard not to wonder why Christianity - at least the Anglican version I was brought up with - is (relatively) harmless in this day and age, whereas Islam at its extremity is far from it.

To forestall any complaints that I'm not comparing like with like, I know that there are good and decent muslims (doubtless the majority) and that Christian fundamentalists are a long way from being benign. A nutjob is a nutjob, regardless of creed. My point is that certain branches of some religions are so wishy-washy as to be virtually non-existent, whereas others demand blood for even intending to exercise what would outside the religion be regarded as a basic human right. The same kind of comparison might be made between the two extremes of one religion: I don't care. I'm not concerned with which-religion-is-more-peaceful arguments.

Don't get me wrong: the type of Anglican Christianity I was brought up into is not devoid of evil. The church is currently divided over homosexuality. There is the ghost of a justification of faith-head attitudes on this, since homosexual sex is labelled as an abomination in the bible, although there is absolutely no excuse for discrimination in practice(1). It is also divided over the issue of female bishops, which has neither excuse nor justification anywhere within either scripture or the realms of sanity. These are bona fide evils and it is the duty of the enlightened to protest.

This brings me to my point. In the UK (and lots of other places), we can protest. It is frowned upon (and not just by the religious, which is a point I'll come back to later), but it is tolerated. It's OK for me to say that religion is bullshit. Lots of people complain when I do, but nobody has beheaded me yet. Of the five death threats I've received, two were from Christians, but those were serious nutjobs in the US, far from their relatively harmless and sane brethren more representative of the UK(2). Having said that, I would think twice before calling someone a coward for refusing to criticise Islam.

The American journalist Sherry Jones recently wrote a book called The Jewel of Medina. I haven't read that book and neither has anyone else. This is because it was shredded by her publishers and no longer exists. The publishers (Random House) were worried about reprisals from Muslims for the crime of publishing a work of fiction. The novel was about the life of Aisha, a girl married off at age six to a certain Mohamed ibn Abdallah, a 50-year old who later became known as Mohamed the Profit. Or the Everliving, or something. Anyway, after the marriage, Aisha was instantly banned from playing with her friends for three years. After that, at age nine, she was sent to live with her husband, who had sex with her. Aisha also seems to have unwittingly been the motivation for muslim women being compelled to cover their bodies and faces: Aisha was accused at age 14 of committing adultery and after that all Mohamed's wives were ordered to cover up. This seems to have led somehow to the situation in Islam today. I have to say, this sounds like a great book. It has it all: sex, betrayal, historical interest...what's not to like? Well, paedophilia, I suppose. Shameful, brutal, controlling behaviour. A father's complicit and later regretted actions in signing over his daughter to a beast. But this is hardly the novel's or the author's fault, is it?

Unfortunately, Random House felt compelled to pulp the book through fear of another 'Danish Cartoon' affair. I can understand their reasons and I can't bring myself to condemn them for cowardice, but I can pout about it.

Bantam Books had no such concerns over publishing The God Delusion.

How did this situation come about?

Christianity has been largely defused by criticism. Imagine if Origin of Species had been banned (as it ironically might have been if not for class structure). Imagine if Russell had been banned, or fiction authors like Douglas Adams, who made light of religion without overtly criticising it. Imagine if the society of his day had not devoured the witticisms of Mark Twain and passed them enthusiastically down to subsequent generations. What if Wodehouse had not been allowed to gently and hilariously lampoon the religious establishment and join others in his portrayal of the tea-drinking, country-show-judging, ineffectual country vicar? What if scientists and engineers, as well as poets, authors and philosophers(3) had not been revered in the Victorian era?

The world would have been greatly the poorer and religion might have maintained much of its former sway. By contrast, books of this kind have been consistently banned in much of the muslim world and treated as deeply worrying or wrong even in the places they are begrudgingly allowed.

As the 'Danish' cartoons and Jones' pulped book show us, we are heading back toward an age where criticism of religion is decreasingly acceptable. This can only increase the power of religion to do terrible things. Formerly decent Anglican priests are already becoming more fractious and bigoted because they have woken up to the publicity they can generate that way, and to the extent they can get away with such hatred if they do it in the name of religion.

This is aided and abetted by those non-religious souls who feel that religious views ought inexplicably to be respected. In the UK, these people are the chief promulgators of intolerance and they ought to be ashamed of themselves. They gleefully set the scene for intolerance and hatred as though those are respectable and not intolerable.

Edit: I excitedly thought up the idea of god being a sort of constitutional monarch within the Anglican church, much as our actual monarch is within our government: devoid of real, wieldable power and a figurehead at best. As time passes, the question of whether we should finally abolish the monarchy becomes more trivial and arguments in the monarchy's favour dissolve. My brilliant idea was to compare this to god in the anglican and other 'moderate' churches, explaining why even non-muslims are scared of Islam, whereas most people have an almost overwhelming urge to throw every anglican vicar's shoes into the girls' toilets. However, it turns out that Dan Dennett got there before me and made the exact same analogy. I should be pleased with myself, I guess.

(1) Of course, so is trimming your beard, wearing two different fabrics at once, sowing two different crops in the same furrow, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. although this seems to be conveniently forgotten by the bigots. They seem able to decide that the various abominations that are too difficult or pointless to comply with are no longer relevant today, but that the ones that don't apply to them personally, or which trigger their personal predudices, are still perfectly relevant. Interestingly, nobody ever explains where their authority to make these decisions comes from.

(2) For the record, another was from a Rabbi in the US and came about because I objected to his claim that I must believe in god, otherwise I would work weekends and over Christmas. I told him he was wrong: that I take these days off because they are holidays and that their origin is irrelevant, as well as explaining to him the origin of the 2-day weekend in the UK. He responded by threatening to kill me. Another was from a muslim and I was entirely unable to work out what I'd said that he objected to. Yet another was from someone who seemed to believe absolutely every single thing he had ever been told, providing it was absolute madness. He seemed to cast me as some kind of anti-christ figure because I asked for evidence of some of his more outlandish claims. The two death threats from Christians were unsurprisingly related to homosexuality and/or abortion. It is all too difficult to tell with people like this. I've also had a few people contact my place of work and complain to my boss about me, even though any argument - real or perceived - had nothing whatsoever to do with my work. And I'm by no means the most offensive of vocal critics of religion.

(3) What really seems to have been revered was learning. It was not always well directed and there was much nonsense, but revering learning and education, even among only the elite, is a good start.

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