The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 20th, 2009

Saints alive, all this religious tolerance has gone too far

St Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower who died in 1897, has achieved a ghoulish immortality here on earth. Some bits of her long-dead body, carefully divided to share among the faithful, have been touring the world to popular acclaim for years, and now some pieces of her thigh and foot have arrived in this country, to a reception that an excited priest has understandably called “massive”. Beginning at St John’s Cathedral in Portsmouth last week, these bones will travel to 28 places in England and Wales, and if the first stop is anything to go by, they will get the rapturous welcome of a rock star. Thousands of the faithful descended on Portsmouth and queued patiently for their turn to touch the casket containing the bones, or rather to touch the glass that contains the casket. Touching is the point. One old man rubbed two angel figurines against the glass, saying: “I do believe in the power of objects like this.” Relics are magic. They are supposed to have magic powers. Many of the people visiting the relics of St Thérèse, if not all, visit them precisely because they are hoping for magic, in other words a miracle, conferred on them by touching a magic object. That is partly why relics are very good business. Many who visited Portsmouth were praying for miracles, especially for healing, and though many prominent Catholics speak guardedly of such things, the church does not discourage the idea — rather the reverse — that miracles and miraculous healing are possible. After all, St Thérèse could not have become a saint if she had not in the church’s eyes achieved a miracle or two — in her case miracles of healing, of which she is a patron saint. As Norman Price, deputy head steward of St John’s, said last week: “I believe if people’s faith is strong enough, miracles can happen. With her faith and guidance, then maybe, yes, things will happen.” And as the Bishop of Portsmouth said: “I think England has been sceptical about relics in the past. But perhaps not now.” To the agnostic all this seems pre-scientific mumbo jumbo, on a level with voodoo fetishes or the Buddha’s tooth in Sri Lanka. In primitive thought, objects do indeed have mana, as anthropologists call it — supernatural powers. One might say that it hardly matters; we all have our follies and if people here choose to believe that a statue in Southall of the Hindu elephant god really did suck up milk from votive saucers in 1995, they are and ought to be free to do so. It wasn’t so long ago that Europe was almost awash with gallons of the milk of the Virgin Mary, treasured by the faithful. And fellow citizens ought usually to be polite enough to keep their critical thoughts to themselves, in the name of courtesy and mutual tolerance. However, there is a difference in this case. The Catholic Church is actively encouraging people to hope for miracles of healing. These reliquary jamborees can only inflame irrational expectations in people who are suffering and suggestible. Surely it cannot be right to do so. Any face cream promising much lesser miracles — merely the disappearance of wrinkles — would soon fall foul of trading standards officers and have to be withdrawn, to protect the innocent public from being deluded by the false claims of charlatans. Why, then, have the media been so uncritical about this mass deception? Years ago I spent many months in the BBC trying to make television documentaries about supernatural healing, including Christian healing. After a great deal of research and countless visits, conversations and false trails, I had to accept that I could not find one single example of Christian healing (or any other supernatural healing). There were plenty of claims, but very little evidence, and certainly no evidence that would stand up in a documentary. What I did find was something that shocked me — the bamboozling of frightened, suffering, suggestible people by Christians who offered them the hope of a miraculous cure, if their faith were strong enough. Religious tolerance is difficult in such cases. The intolerant, triumphalist atheists have never appealed to me. I cannot see why it is so important to them to denounce other people’s religious beliefs so aggressively. I don’t know why people who pride themselves on their rationality can be so irrationally sure that they are right; absolute certainty is not a rational position. Besides, Catholics and Christians generally are very often a force for good; most of what’s best in our society is built upon Christian foundations. All the same, there comes a time when even a peaceable agnostic feels roused to indignation. For me it was last week, at the news that the Home Office has seen fit to let the bones of the Little Flower into Wormwood Scrubs prison. This almost defies belief. For, in allowing this, with all the due process and deliberation of bureaucracy, the government is conferring respectability on such relics. And in so doing, it opens wide the gates of reason to let into any public place any and every fetish or juju that any religious group claims is part of its spiritual life. The laws on equality and religious respect will require it. What the starry progress of the relics of the Little Flower has done for me is to remind me that we have in this country rather too much religious tolerance. The truth is that many religions — perhaps most — have certain doctrines and beliefs that are not merely irrational but sometimes dangerous and unacceptable. At this very moment there are religions, with countless adherents in this country, that teach that people can truly be possessed by demons, which must be exorcised, perhaps violently; that witches exist and must be punished or killed; that God has created women inferior and subject to men; that women are unclean and must be excluded from certain places and roles for that reason. These beliefs — held until recently by most of Christian Europe — are actually against the law in this country and contrary to the universal declaration of human rights. Yet the duty of religious tolerance persuades us to overlook this fact. It persuades us to ignore the truth that religions are not really equal, in the sense that they are not equally benign or harmless. Some religions do promote unacceptable things, while others peddle false hopes here on earth. I would not dream of suggesting that the government return to the ancient tradition of suppressing religious freedom. But I think we should insist that the Home Office does not lend any extra official respectability to religious hocus-pocus of any kind. Superstition, like St Thérèse, has a curious immortality on earth.