Egotism disguised as piety

This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 20 October 2006.

When believers complain that atheists are out to restrict their legitimate right to self-expression, they have completely lost the plot.

In a Guardian article on religious expression, Stephen Beer of the Christian Socialist Movement erects a straw giant – a virtual wicker man of an argument – in claiming that some irreligious voices are calling for an “atheist” state. And what on earth is “engaging with faith perspectives”? It sounds to me like the kind of unspeak one expects from a management consultant or New Labour policy wonk, not a social crusader.

Only a few states have attempted to abolish religion, and they were all complete basket cases. No-one in the current debate is calling for an “atheist state”. Not even Polly Toynbee, who we all know has a predilection for legislating and regulating away the world’s troubles.

In similar vein to Mike Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies (“Godwin’s Law“), I hereby propose “Sedgemore’s Law of Religious Rumpus”:

“As any argument about religion progresses, the probability of believers complaining that unbelievers wish to ban them approaches one.”

What is happening here is that some very pissed-off atheists, agnostics and couldn’t-care-less-ists are finding their voice in a debate set up and manipulated by religious forces, and the latter are on the whole reacting hysterically to forthright criticism from the godless heathens. But this is something that religious believers will just have to live with, and that includes insult and ridicule.

Earlier this year I criticised the publication of the Danish cartoons on grounds of crass insensitivity, but given the way in which the debate has since degenerated, I’m reluctant now to continue with that line of reasoning. If, however, it gets to the stage where religious believers are genuinely demonised, the rest of us will have a moral duty to defend our neighbours. Otherwise, I just wish they’d let it lie.

Actually, the old adage “You make your bed and lie in it” rings very true when it comes to religion. The problem comes when you try to lie in someone else’s bed without first being invited. If some people will insist on believing 101 impossible things before breakfast, and structure their entire lives around fantasies, then that’s fine by me as long as it doesn’t intrude into my space. Personal vices, consenting adults and all that. This doesn’t mean banning headscarves, crucifixes or pentacles. All it requires is respect for cultural diversity, and refraining from antagonistic, in-yer-face gestures.

As for the crude statistics quoted by Stephen Beer, if 75% of Britons identify with a religion yet only a handful attend worship services and claim active membership of a church, synagogue, mosque, coven or whatever, then one can only surmise that religious identity is for the majority no more than cultural baggage which is now looking distinctly shabby and threadbare.

Most residents of the British Isles may claim Christian heritage, but probe their beliefs and what emerges may be more akin to folk paganism than the sturdy mix of Greek philosophy and Jewish heresy proclaimed by the apostles and their successors. When the Bishop of Rome talks of reason in religion, he is referring not just to Islam, but also rather obliquely to a resurgent and secularised pantheism that threatens to topple the wobbly edifice of monotheistic religion, Christianity and Islam included. This is the Pope’s greatest concern, and it is something also for atheists to consider.

The thing is, given that the majority have voted with their feet and cast aside religious belief and practice, the monotheists have already lost the battle, and the noises they make are no more than the death rattle (and occasional booms) of organised religion. In my dreams, I wish they would all slink off into the sunset without fuss, just like the Anglicans, from whom we get little more these days than the odd hissy fit about queers in cassocks and the colour of vestments to be worn on movable feasts.

When believers and unbelievers could join in constructive discourse about humanistic issues such as morality, ethics and the relationship between individual, family and community, we are stuck instead with the sheer tedium of media-fed rows about faith school quotas and (covered-up) egotism disguised as piety. Within the blogosphere, this so-called debate will I imagine continue until the protagonists all end up as gibbering wrecks, such is the tendency of the medium to encourage obsessive behaviour. As for the mainstream media, I plead with editors to move on. There are plenty of other interesting things to discuss. Really.