The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 7th, 2004

You really don’t have to be religious to be a bigot

There is a disquieting feeling in the air that times are changing. All kinds of events both major and minor are signs of it. Last week, for instance, Theo van Gogh, a Dutch film-maker, was slaughtered on the street in Amsterdam, apparently by another Dutchman.

Witnesses saw him being repeatedly shot by a bearded man in a jellaba, who then slit his throat and stabbed him in the chest. The suspect is a man of joint Dutch and Moroccan nationality and is an Islamic fundamentalist.

Van Gogh had produced Submission, a flamboyantly outspoken film about Muslim violence against women, and the woman who wrote it, the Somalian-Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali, says she is afraid that the film was the direct cause of his death.

This was not the first time the two had attacked Islam. Both have made many extreme criticisms, some of his extremely coarse and unprintable. More soberly he had spoken of a “retrograde and aggressive faith”, and she has called Islam a “backward, 12th-century religion”, “misogynist, incapable of self-criticism and blind to modern science”, and described herself as an “ex-Muslim”.

Fortunately, unlike van Gogh, she lives under 24-hour police protection. The Dutch are horrified: tolerant Holland has been for centuries one of the brightest bulbs of the European enlightenment; now that light is going out.

A different and minor incident, which is nonetheless a straw in the same wind of change, was the proposal of Islington council in north London to change the name of St Mary Magdelene primary school, which opened in 1710. It wants to drop the word “saint” for fear of causing offence to other religions. Needless to say this proposal does not come from local people; parents and local religious leaders — some of them Muslim and Jewish — have expressed outrage at the plan.

It is particularly striking that both Jewish and Muslim spokesmen and women have made it plain that this is simply not an issue and they have no objection at all to the word saint, but recognise the history and traditions of this country.

The vicar of St Mary Magdalene says parents feel that Islington council has “been running an anti-Christian agenda, consistently, on ideological grounds, rejecting Christianity”. If it has, it is not alone; there are countless examples across the country of secularist attempts to edit out Christian and post-Christian traditions, with bogus excuses about giving offence.

Then there was the major event of the American election and the decisive victory of the Christian conservatives — the defeat of nuance by conviction. What struck me above all was the fear and loathing that so many people expressed, both over there and here, for the victors.

All the official talk about healing has impressed nobody. Sophisticated liberals felt rage and contempt and astonishment that their country could have been taken over by a bunch of redneck religious fundamentalists and moral majority bigots, who have the nerve to despise them. The response was mirrored over here. The Guardian, for instance, printed the cover of one section funereal black, with only two tiny words in white: “Oh, God”.

All these different events point to the same alarming thing — a new division in western culture along religious lines.

It is not a division within Christianity, although Christians do have their squabbles, absurd though they may seem to outsiders. It is a division along the lines of religiosity. Oddly enough this was a word I heard American commentators using quite neutrally during the election, describing voting patterns. To me it is not neutral. It is pejorative, having to do with extreme excesses of religious zeal.

The division across the western world is between those of any faith or none who are prepared to tolerate everyone else, and those whose faith rejects tolerance. It is a division between the godly and the worldly, as Simon Schama has put it.

On the same side as the godly are to be found a large number of secularistas — militant secularists quite unaware of their own religiosity whose dogmatic intolerance seeks to stamp out religion altogether. It is a divide between triumphalism and tolerance. We are now suddenly being forced to confront that divide, right across the western world and even in the most orderly, prosperous parts of the richest country in history. Bigotry is not only for impoverished peasants.

Some British conservatives have been looking rather wistfully at the political power of American Christians, as if perhaps there could be some sort of moral majority here, too, or at least a usefully large minority, which is silenced and disenfranchised for now. I hope that they abandon such thoughts very soon. While I am not a secularista, I am an agnostic and I fear the spirit described in The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic American novel about intolerant puritanical religion. It is not something to conjure with here.

I was born American and have ties and connections there. My encounters with people of the moral majority there have been genuinely frightening. Highly educated, kind, admirable and neighbourly people believe things which are shocking to educated Europeans.

They believe that homosexuals are evil and should not be allowed to teach in schools. Some look forward to a second coming in Israel or to a kind of apocalyptic rapture. They reject not only Darwin and evolution, but also scientific thinking in general. But it is scientific thinking — not science itself, but its provisional, evidence-based approach to knowledge — that will set us free and keep us free.

Admittedly it is true that religion tends to make people good and useful citizens up to a point — up to the point where they feel driven by a higher father to slaughter an infidel in the street or to persecute homosexuals or to stop scientific research or to force unwanted babies upon unwilling mothers.

Everyone must have some sympathy with Bible Belters and Muslims who point to the slaggy decadence of secular western culture — its teenage mothers and fatherless children, its shabby sexualisation and mindless consumerism. But the well worn idea that people would behave better if only they could get religion is not only impractical and cynical — it is also dangerous.

The real challenge that tolerant, post-enlightenment westerners face as they stare at everyone else across the gulf of religiosity is not religion. It is tolerance. Tolerance is the problem because is cursed with a paradoxical nature; the tolerant are vulnerable to the intolerant and not least in multi-cultural democracies.

In some Midlands towns today for example, where British Muslims are in the majority, some are calling for the recognition of sharia above British law. How can tolerance coupled with respect for local wishes and majority voting respond to that? During the American election people talked of culture wars. I feel that we are in the middle of the beginning of new conflicts, but they are wars not of culture or religion but of religiosity.