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Friday, December 03, 2010

Tantum Potuit Suadere Religio Malorum

There’s an amusing episode of South Park where Randy has a few beers before turning up to get the boys a lift home and, for this misdemeanour, is sent to an AA meeting. He emerges from this convinced he is an alcoholic and starts drinking morning, noon and night, since – as his AA friends tell him – he is powerless in the face of his addiction, so he may as well, y’know, face up to it by getting constantly plastered. At the heart of the AA’s 12 step programme is the idea of submission to a higher power: it’s all very culty-sounding to me. Then again, perhaps it’s not for me to judge, not having had to live with the scourge of alcoholism. But when I read a column like this by John Burnside, I think: wow. This is one of the strangest newspaper columns I can remember seeing for a long time. Writing as a recovered alcoholic, Burnside invokes peyote and other druggy experiences, before announcing:

This is not a plea for the legalisation of street drugs, nor is it a flippant counter to vague public health measures that have been described as ‘window dressing’ and ‘lacking in detail’. What I would suggest, however, is that the best method of treating alcoholism, smoking and obesity is a religious one.

I’m at risk, I’m sure, of becoming a Dawkinsite bore on the subject of religion, but while I don’t much like the witch-finder generalish side of Dawkins’ personality (I am a zealot of indifference more than anything else), I think my objections to Burnside are prompted more by a concern for the nature of meaningful debate than by religion per se. One of the worst aspects (of many) of Tony Blair’s legacy has been the enshrining in public discourse, in the UK, of faith as an argument in itself, or more often, a roadblock to any argument taking place. Usually this position comes kitted out in the Ali G-esque motley of ‘respect’. I fully tolerate religion, meaning I do not advocate its prohibition, but I in no way respect it, at all. A simple demonstration of why not: substitute for the words ‘is a religious one’ at the end of the passage from Burnside above the phrase ‘belching loudly’. This is not a serious way of treating alcoholism, smoking or obesity. But neither is religion, and I don’t understand why these vaporous god-botherers are given the time of day in serious newspapers. I mean, scientists are not expected to conduct discussions with members of the Flat Earth Society.

But examples can come a lot more serious than this, as in the recently exposed practice (thank you Johann Hari) of abattoirs getting around rules on stunning animals before slaughter by using halal or kosher methods instead, which is to say cutting their throats and muttering some prayer or other about how pleased the most merciful is god that another sheep has got what’s coming to him. The blame for this practice, it seems, lies principally with abattoirs exploiting a religious loophole, but if the law did not provide these loopholes in the first place, this problem would not exist. And still on Tony Blair, in his public debate with him in Toronto recently Christopher Hitchens came out with this soundbite:

The Catholic Church holds it better for the Sun and Moon to drop from Heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die from starvation in extremest agony … than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.

And who said this: Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins? No, Cardinal Newman. And what is this but the essence of the religious worldview? And a vile and ludicrous worldview it is too. Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum. Pass me the peyote, pass me the whiskey. Because even if I did become an alcoholic, I would still have the use of my mind. But, John Burnside and all your fellow god-bothering friends, spare me the pie-eyed religious baloney, please.


Anonymous said...

"Religion: treat it like your penis. Don't show it off in public, and don't shove it down your children's throats."

Anne said...

Great post. It's one thing to respect other people qua people, quite another to respect their daft beliefs. What is it that liberal (I use the word lightly) humanists are so afraid of? Inhumane killing of animals is inhumane, no matter who does it or what magic words they utter. (Cutting bits off the genitals of minors isn't very enlightened either. Nor is telling children that they will go to hell for questioning. Oh, don't get me started.)