Saving the world from religious idiocy?

This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 12 January 2007.

It will take a lot more than shouting at the radio to defeat the forces of darkness and superstition.

On Tuesday evening there gathered in protest in central London a few hundred Christian fundamentalists, together with a small number of Muslim and Jewish fellow travellers. The assembled devout gave thanks to their gods, and rejoiced in their hatred of the love that they would prefer never saw the light of day, never mind dare not speak its name.

In response to both the religious rally and the secularist response, Dave Hill, one of my favourite social commentators, contributed to Comment is Free what is, for him, a very strongly-worded piece. I particularly like the reference to the “whorishly unveiled” Dr Majid Katme of the Islamic Medical Association.

Dave argues that while civilised people must stand firm against theocratic intolerance, hardcore secularist contempt – such as that he claims is displayed by AC Grayling and Polly Toynbee – for all religious sentiment is as blinkered as the bigotry it berates.

This would be a fair comment, if it were true, but I fear Dave has over-interpreted Grayling and Toynbee’s polemics. These writers are angry and frustrated with the appalling behaviour of religious fundamentalists, and rightly so. Grayling is known to use intemperate language when he falls off his lecturer’s rostrum, and Toynbee can get a bit screechy at times, but neither are in the same league as Enver Hoxha, and the religious need not fear such outbursts.

As for resistance to religion coming from the “liberal-left”, I no longer have any idea what a “liberal” is, so abused has the term become. Much the “left” these days is in thrall to religion and dismissive of such bourgeois notions as gay rights, described recently by a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (aka Respect) as a “shibboleth”.

I go along with much of the critique of dogmatic anti-religionism, which is, like, so early 20th century. While I’m quite partial to a good rant against religious extremism and institutions, I feel that some of the current atheist reaction against religious faith per se is short-sighted, and a logical positivist, or historical materialist, universe is many people’s idea of hell. Atheists as much as believers are capable of thinking 101 ridiculous things before breakfast. It’s all part of being fallible and human.

One problem with Dave’s thesis is that dogmatic religion of the kind on display in Westminster is on the rise, whereas the faith of his beloved – a liberal Catholic whom he beautifully describes snorting contemptuously at a homophobic peer allowed to vent spleen on breakfast talk radio – is not. Another is that liberal religionists are pretty timid in their public opposition to the bigots.

I’m struck by the image of a liberal Catholic snorting at Lord Mackay’s inanities on the Today programme, but shouting at the radio first thing in the morning is good for no more than jump-starting the brain before heading off to work. Fun though it is, such behaviour isn’t going to save the world from religious idiocy.

Addendum (not offered to CiF): One last thing: why is it that the folks out on the street on Tuesday night holding vigil with their candles and megaphones are so consumed with interest in men’s bottoms? Is there a psychologist in the house who could enlighten us on this most curious matter? It gives new meaning to the term anally retentive.

In memory of Judith Elizabeth Pinnington – liberal Christian and church historian of my acquaintance – who died recently.