Stephen Bowman criticises the continuing divisive role of religion in Scotland
There’s nothing more human than religion: nothing more symptomatic of this creative, inquisitive little species. It encapsulates humanity’s capacity to learn, ask questions and to improve itself. I can’t think of anything else that better wraps into one its insecurities, its ability to love and its desire for peace. Nor can I think of anything that’s more accomplished at motivating hatred, starting wars and generally breeding intolerance. All very human indeed, and like much of what we’ve created (the Conservative Party and hedge fund managers being but two examples) religion talks a load of guff and has done a good job of screwing up the world. Love thy neighbour and all that. So long as thy neighbour attends the right school, is of the right denomination and has sex with the right people. If they don’t, they can all burn in hell! And that’s just the Christians.
It would seem, then, that the fiery depths will be particularly busy. Heathens are a diverse demographic and although, despite what one of our councillors said on radio recently, I’m quite sure it isn’t SNP policy to resign them to eternal damnation, there are perhaps a little too many people who would. To oversimplify things, maybe, we still live in a world of religious crusade and martyrdom. Global conflict and terrorism hide under a thin veneer of politics and culture but, as a friend of mine said, it’s just oil and religion. Nevertheless, as the fundamentalists rightly worry, more and more people are growing slightly sceptical about the existence of omnipotent, all knowing ghosts and we are witnessing the creeping secularisation of society. People like the purposefully controversial Richard Dawkins have given atheism a profile and I do feel that to not believe has become less unacceptable than it could be.
A good time then, perhaps, to question what place religion has in society and how it can and should fit into a peaceful future. To do this, it may be best to focus our attention on the ever complicated situation in Scotland. Certainly there is enough religious conflict and mutual dislike on our own doorstep to keep us amused and it is this that I’d like to focus on. When I get otherwise reasonable and intelligent people telling me they would never marry a non-Catholic because they ‘just couldn’t’ or that ‘Catholics are as bad as atheists’, I do worry. And I really get the heebie-jeebies whenever someone talks about Catholic and Protestant schools. I’m not a Catholic so I must be a Protestant. Is that how it works? But what branch of Protestantism do I follow? It must be the atheist one. We do live in a Christian country after all.
Tax payer’s cash could indeed be put to better use than covering the cost of parades that bring with them a poisonous mixture of bigotry, imagined history and religious identity.
Of course, that so many people are so simplistic in their outlook is a real problem. Indeed, perhaps it is the main problem and, in the West of Scotland at any rate, faith schools are at the very root of this. Leaving aside the history, if only we could, what purpose do faith schools serve in the present day? It seems to me that they do a fairly competent job at perpetuating segregation. It may not be their intention, or their universal product, but I can’t see how a school system that separates children on the basis of their parent’s belief can fail to do so, at least on occasion. It certainly institutionalises religious division with a nervous state sponsored legitimacy. The fact that politicians of every creed are not all that keen on debating the issue of faith schools goes some way to demonstrate the hold religion has on society.
I did take some solace recently, however, from the news that Glasgow City Council is questioning the value for money in letting so many Orange marches congest the city’s streets. Tax payer’s cash could indeed be put to better use than covering the cost of parades that bring with them a poisonous mixture of bigotry, imagined history and religious identity. And it is this religious identity that to complete the circle can be found all the way to the gates of Buckingham Palace and the ‘Defender of the Faith’ herself. What greater endorsement than a head of state? An individual crowned on the notion that Roman Catholics are bad does not really send out the right signals. That is why I think there needs to be a complete separation of organised religion from the workings of the state. If, somehow, one lot of people can identify more than others with the institutions that govern a nation, you’re on to a problem be it through the perceived Protestantism of the British State that alienates Roman Catholics or, by insisting on being a Christian country, at risk of disenfranchising Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and everything else in between.
Such a conflict can perhaps be seen in the debate currently raging in Scotland over the issue of assisted suicide. This follows on from Margo MacDonald’s consultation and proposed Member’s Bill in the Scottish Parliament and is something I’ve come to feel particularly strongly about. My grandmother who, as Margo does, suffered from Parkinson’s disease was assisted in her suicide by my grandfather. This was something not openly discussed due to the risk of prosecution until after my grandfather himself died and it is pleasing that now it can be brought up in the context of trying to change the law. Whilst there are numerous reasons why people may argue against legalising assisted suicide, it may not surprise you to learn that it is the religious argument that I found most deplorable.
Typically this comes in the form of insisting that it is immoral to take a life that was given by god and how, by extension, it is not your life to take. Without going into the finer points of the assisted suicide debate, religion, needless to say, does not have a monopoly on morality and if I don’t believe in your god, his god, her god or whoever’s god, then you are in no position to tell me what I can or can’t do on the basis of your own superstitious belief. Yet, there exists the expectation across society that people of faith do indeed have a greater insight as to what is right or wrong. Understandable, of course, when you consider the great religions of the world have spent the past few thousand years espousing this very message. Yawn.
This is something I know the Humanist Society has taken exception to and has challenged the BBC in its stubbornness to use only priests, rabbis and the like in the ‘Thought for the Day’ slot. Good for them. Certainly I have various thoughts every day and one or two of them might be of use to someone were I given the chance to broadcast them on the early morning radio waves. I said at the top of the article that religion is a very human creation and I stand by that. Some of what I’ve written may lead you to the conclusion that I haven’t got much time for religion, and you’d be right. But in spite of my foregoing ranting and broad, unsubstantiated swipes at the godly I would like to move the goalposts slightly.
My gripe is really with the dogma so commonly associated with organised religion and, as much as I find the idea of religious faith irrational and unreasonable, it does elicit an attraction. It is the reason behind this attraction that makes religion so human. It provides a way of dealing with death. Granted, a nonsensical and impossible way, but a way nonetheless. Through belief in an incorruptible higher being and the promise of everlasting life, people are able to reconcile their insignificance and brevity on Earth with their day to day existence.
I don’t want to think about dying. I don’t like that I and everyone I hold dear are only temporary. It makes me uncomfortable to think of it all coming to an end and there being nothing. This is where religion can come in. Such a consideration will have some people reaching for their Bible or Koran, and good luck to them. I mean that. As the old saying goes, we can only act according to our own lights and if that directs you to the gods please feel free. But on the few occasions when I’ve been obliged to attend a church service, I’ve left only with a sense of the desperate futility in the whole exercise. Put simply, there is nobody going to answer those well meant and genuine prayers.
Let’s be honest, there is no god. Or, if we can’t be honest, let’s be assumptive. Let’s assume there’s no god. That way we might all get along a bit better. If everyone can’t make that assumption, and I’m sure everyone can’t, let’s all agree to disagree and say nothing more about it.