You Just Can’t

I listened to last week’s ‘Start the Week’ yesterday. (I always listen to it late, for some reason.) I like Andrew Marr, but I didn’t realize how much I like him until I heard Sue MacGregor filling in for him. Dang, she made a mess of it. She kept interrupting – no doubt it’s the presenter’s job to keep things moving along and on track, but Marr manages to do that without constantly cutting people off in the middle of a sentence. And worse than that, she kept getting everything wrong, misunderstanding the guests’ books and what they said to her, and saying the silliest thing she could think of. She contemptuously told Jeffrey Sachs, who’s just written a book about how to end poverty, that we were always chucking money at Africa. He was so annoyed he repeated it back to her about eight times during the show, along with some full explanations of why it was bullshit. Come back soon, Andrew. Yes I know there’s an election, but all the same.

One of the guests was Cristina Odone. I wrote a N&C about her once, a long, long time ago. I don’t remember the details, but it was something foolish she said about religion, I remember that much. And she said more foolish things on Start the Week. She’s one of the ‘You may not say critical things about religion’ crowd. She’s very cross with her old colleagues at the New Statesman because of their cover story about the pope. She didn’t actually say that what the NS said – that the pope did more to spread AIDS in Africa than prostitution and the trucking industry combined, I believe – is not true, just that it’s bad to say it. It makes religious people angry, to see that kind of thing. Therefore we mustn’t say it. Oh. So we should just watch in cheerful silence then while the Vatican tells people not to use condoms, and even tells them that condoms don’t block the virus, which is a lie? Well the hell with that. And it’s not the NS that is wrong to point it out, it’s Odone who is wrong to rebuke them for doing so. This kind of authoritarian nonsense is increasing, it seems to me – this self-righteous ‘how dare you criticise religion’ rhetoric. Well how dare you not criticise it? Do you think the pope is right to ban condoms? If so, why? If not, why do you think we should be quiet about it?

Richard Dawkins wrote a terrific article on this subject in 2001. In it he quoted from a terrific speech by Douglas Adams.

Now, the invention of the scientific method is, I’m sure we’ll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked. If it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn’t withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn’t seem to work like that. It has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, “Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? — because you’re not!” If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says “I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday,” you say, “I respect that.”

Exactly. Just what I’m always saying. You’re just not. Why? Because you’re not!

So popes can get away with murder and we’re supposed to just sit back and take it.

The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking “Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?” But I wouldn’t have thought, “Maybe there’s somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics,” when I was making the other points. I just think, “Fine, we have different opinions.” But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody’s (I’m going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say “No, we don’t attack that; that’s an irrational belief but no, we respect it.” Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows — but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe… no, that’s holy? What does that mean? Why do we ring-fence that for any other reason other than that we’ve just got used to doing so?

And of course because people like Odone (and even other people, of whom one would not expect it) get indignant or more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger about it, thus making sure that we keep on being used to doing so, keep on shying away from the ring-fenced holy taboo inner sanctum, keep on not saying the pope did a hell of a lot of harm for just one guy without nuclear weapons. It’s a bad arrangement. Ring-fence that.

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