i’m sitting here listening and already i’ve turned to a life of crime

The following post goes against the grain for me. I really don’t like getting involved in debates that involve religion, mainly due to the fact I am not totally sure what I believe myself, but the following piece by Polly Toynbee in today’s Guardian was just too much, so I have to say something.

The Guardian Op-Ed piece on religion & state

I read, I quaked, I hid under the desk. Just the pure loathing in this woman’s voice for religion had me reeling. Pretty much every religion under the sun gets a bashing, including the Buddhists, but she is at her most scathing about Catholicism, C of E, and, of course, Islam. Mrs Blair “a Catholic wife who consorts with crystals”?! Mr Blair, has “appeased, prevaricated and pretended”, all because he is “a man of faith”. Ruth Kelly, the education secretary, is slammed, and it is clearly pointed out that she is also “devout”, indicating that this is the root of all evil. Religion, we are told, should be relegated to the world of dreams. It is the ending of the piece where, for me, the wheels truly come off the wagon. “The constitutional absurdity of an established church”? “Clouds of hypocrisy”? “Twisted thinking”? Calling for us to “stop this madness”?

At what point did being religious become such a crime? Men, and women, of faith have been great forces for good in this world, and by faith I mean any faith. For sure, men of professed faith have also caused great harm, but so have people who claim no religion: you need just look at the continued persecution of Christians in China to see the legacy of Communism and “religion as the opiate of the masses”.

As for her argument that we need separation of church and state, I’d say take a look at the United States, which has a constitution that ties itself in knots to separate the two, but she already has done and admits they have a serious problem with fundamentalists and terrorism. They have had separation for the past two centuries, there is a total ban on Federal funding for religion in schools, organized school prayer is illegal, and as a result they have one of the most right wing Christian administrations in the world. Yet she wants us to follow the same path?

Stopping religious education is not the answer. It is by not exposing children to different religions that we get intolerance and misunderstanding. When kids aren’t given the chance to learn about religions in a controlled environment so that they can make up their own minds, they can fall prey to extremists and fundamentalists. I was brought up and educated in a school that was nominally C of E. I sang in the church choir for a while, went to Sunday school, was baptised, and every week we had prayer in school assembly, and sang the odd hymn. But I also learnt about other religions at the same time, in fact I think in RE we were taught more about Judaism and Islam than all the Christian sects put together, and when I decided that C of E was not, after all, for me, that was fine. All along, the message imparted to me was that very British form of ‘live and let live’: “keep your beliefs to your self”.

I can see the point that she is trying, badly, to make, but her solution is not the way. We should be inclusive in our outlook, not exclusive, and need to stop bashing people for their convictions. Tony Blair’s personal Catholicism has never been a problem for me. He doesn’t brute it about, and has clearly said on several occasions that whilst he may not agree with something, for example abortion, he won’t impose his ethical views on the nation. On a personal level, I might have serious issues with his religion, and even more serious issues with his political stance, but those are my issues, no one else’s. Because someone is religious doesn’t make them a bad leader. In many cases, I would imagine far from it, for a strong belief in a given religion tends to imbue in a person strong ethical and moral considerations, making them arguably more capable of facing the dilemmas inherent in leading people.

Nothing is guaranteed to get my hackles up more than people like Ms. Toynbee going to lunch on a person’s religious beliefs and blaming all the ills of the world on people who, as a rule, are to be congratulated for doing good. Surely there is a middle way between totally secular, and completely segregated, education, and it is everyone’s moral obligation, regardless of creed, to find it.

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