Religious Crackpot Of the Month: June 2008

John Sentamu is Archbishop of York. He’s referred to as Dr Sentamu in the Times, but his doctorate is in theology so I choose to disregard it. I realise that many theology degrees are about the study of religion as a phenomenon rather than a body of theories to be taken seriously, but he demonstrated on Wednesday that he’s crap at that, when he gave a speech on “The Role of Religion in Politics Today” which was wrong on most important issues.

Organised religion is always ambiguous. It can be both an instrument for good or for great evil. When I consider the history of organised religions the world over and look at the present state of our world and the countless acts of violence committed in the name of God, is it any wonder that the third commandment given to Moses on Mount Sinai was not to misuse the name of the Lord?

Well maybe, although I can’t help feel God should have been a bit more specific. It must have occurred to him that the people misusing his name might think they were using it properly.

Such acknowledgements of wickedness give succour to those dogmatic atheists or illiberal secularists for whom any Utopian vision requires the eradication of all religion.

Succour is the wrong word here. Succour really means relief, whereas really what this provides is justification. Not sure what an illiberal secularist is. Sure, the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but they’re not common bedmates. And then he said…

Yet we only have to look to the Third Reich, the former Soviet Union and the present regimes of North Korea and Burma to consider that a society without religion rapidly loses faith in humanity.

This is just classic Atheists Are Immoral bullshit, isn’t it? And given that Hitler was a Christian it’s hard to see his point about the Third Reich.

In our new century organised religion has become not so much the enemy to be eradicated but the tool to be abused. Whether it be the so called Salafi-Jihadism of Al Qaeda claiming the lives of innocent people perversely in the name of Allah or those narrowly focussed political parties attempting to usurp religious values and heritage, the purveyors of hatred and violence cover their wickedness with a religious cloak, or to use the words of Rabbi Lionel Blue, "the terrorists covering their own inner violence under a fig leaf of faith". Such abusers of religion lay easy claim to centuries of heritage with their lip service whilst their actions, and in some cases perverse ideologies, twist out of shape the garment of faith woven over centuries by faithful scholars and adherents.

I can’t fathom what the hell kind of mind comes up with this. What the hell is “the garment of faith woven over centuries by faithful scholars and adherents”? Either you think that a religion is true, in which case it was woven by God, or you don’t, in which case both sides are wrong. The sheer arrogance exhibited when he says “those people are wrong, you should listen to me if you want to know what God thinks” is astonishing. Why are they wrong? How do we know God isn’t on the terrorists’ side? They have as legitimate a claim to know God’s will as anyone else, surely?

Of course there are some for whom this business of our worship of God and the loving and serving our neighbour means that we should have no place in the political arena.

No, there aren’t. We don’t think the religious should be excluded from politics; we think that religion should be excluded from politics. If you want to sit in Parliament that’s fine; if you want to sit there and enact laws based on what you imagine an all-powerful being would like (but apparently chooses not to enforce) then there’s clearly something wrong there. Secularism is a lot easier to defend when you realise that God doesn’t exist and ‘his’ teachings were invented by superstitious people long before the advents of science and democracy, but it’s pretty easy to defend anyway, as long as you’re talking to someone passably rational.

It is perhaps no surprise that it is when I receive a letter from a correspondent--

From whom else does one receive letters?

--supporting my views I am congratulated for my apparent bravery in speaking out, whilst those who disagree with my stance castigate me in the most telling terms for getting involved in politics ’“ didn't I know that religion and politics should not mix?
The word Politics derives from the Greek for Polis ’“ the City, for the place where life was lived and public business was done. How can anyone think that God is unconcerned or unconnected with any parts of our lives, public or private, or that we can build arenas which become no go areas for God?

How is that remotely relevant? If God existed then he would of course be able to go anywhere he liked (indeed, he’d already be there) and do what he wanted. He could rule the world if he chose to. But it would appear that he has chosen not to. His only contribution to the world is to write one of many indistinguishable but contradictory books of prophecy and instruction, and nobody can agree on which one it was, much less how it should be read or what it all means. We have no idea what the hell God thinks about anything, if he exists at all. And I for one don’t see what gives him any more right to a say than me. Frankly I think I should have more say than he does: he’s a mass-murdering misogynistic megalomaniac who thinks that just because he says he made the universe (a big claim for a guy with no proof who was conveniently the only witness) that means he gets to decide what’s Right and what’s Wrong. He shouldn’t get a vote: he should be sectioned.

Religion concerns the spirit in humanity, whereby we are able to recognize what is truth and what is justice;

This is true. You can recognise justice because it’s unconscionably vindictive and arbitrary.

whereas law is only the application, often imperfectly, of truth and justice in our everyday affairs. ... Speaking in a Christian context, Desmond Tutu put it this way: "I don't know what Bible people are reading when they say religion and politics do not mix".

Isn’t that quite a lot like arguing “I don’t know which episode of Doctor Who people are watching when they say that the Daleks aren’t real”? Of course the Bible is going to be largely unsecular: it’s the fucking Bible. That’s what it’s for. If it was secular, it’d be an encyclopædia.

Not only do religion and politics mix, they must mix because religion enables politics to rediscover our duties and obligations to one another, to focus on service and community and to maintain a sense of liberty as a bulwark against an over-reaching state.

No, it doesn’t. It’s quite simple to do that without religion and religion is an active hinderance in many cases. Look at Islamic countries like Sudan or Saudi Arabia. You want to tell me that religion helps politics “maintain a sense of liberty” then you’d damn well better address those – especially after your little list of evil irreligious regimes, which notably failed to include modern secular democracies such as France, who are not what you’d call known for their genocidal nature. (Feel free to make a joke about their army surrendering to the oppressed minority.) And as for “over-reaching state” – until this year it was illegal to blaspheme! There were actual laws about which expletives I was allowed to use – me, an atheist. Granted the law was only really there as long as nobody tried to use it, but nevertheless…

I would like to consider each of these briefly in turn. ... Is it any wonder that organisations in Britain such as the Hospice Movement, Amnesty International, Shelter, the Samaritans and countless other organisations and movements have been founded and motivated by those with a religious faith who recognise the responsibility and duty towards the other?

Hang on, Amnesty International? This would be the same Amnesty International who are “independent of any … religion” and who the Pope asked Catholics to boycott because he was worried they weren’t upholding his arbitrary stance on abortion? Nice example. Do you think these lists through at all?

More recently the Drop the Debt campaign, and Jubilee campaigns, taking the Biblical idea of Jubilee to reinterpret it as a measure of freeing the most indebted in our world from crippling debt, have demonstrated that such care and concern is not limited to the religious alone but are founded on religious ideas which are adopted by a wider society.

No, they’re not. Care and concern are part of being human. They might even by part of being some animals. They’re not inherently religious ideas. As an atheist, I find the implications of the idea that they are somewhat offensive. He goes on…

The trumpet which was once the herald of this nation's greatness was the imperative of moral responsibility, of doing the right thing, where what was right was informed by a faith based understanding. Now we are told, if we push for the end of religion in the public arena, in our politics and the public square, we will free ourselves from the shackles of an enslaving and moribund moral responsibility. However, if this is the direction which will shape our politics moral responsibility will be displaced not by reason, science or ethics but by sheer consumerism.

Notice again that he’s conflating the concepts of religion and moral responsibility, as if faith has some claim to morality. He even makes a distinction here between morality and ethics. Not really sure what the difference is but I think ‘morality’ is What God Says and ‘ethics’ involves committees.

He explained that 'if each man and woman is a child of God, whom God loves and for whom Christ died, then there is in each a worth absolutely independent of all usefulness to society." This is a principle we need to hear afresh--

Yes, if only there was some kind of purely secular document that laid out that all men are created equal.

--not least in our treatment of the elderly, those refused asylum, young people in the care system, and the severely disabled, who, in my book, are clearly our teachers.

This explains a lot. (Sorry.)

Human rights without the safeguarding of a God-reference tends to set up rights which trump others' rights when the mood music changes.

I wonder if he realises that the alternative to that is a system whereby only one person is alive at a time.

This religious vision needs once more to become a political vision for all to create a more just society and usher in God's rule of justice upon earth. Let us all do it, and let us do it now.

I always start to get a bit worried when people talk about “[ushering] in God’s rule of justice upon earth”. Sounds a bit culty to me. Religion is so commonplace that the absurdity of people discussing morality in terms of the opinions of an invisible grandad tends to pass me by, but once they start talking as if he’s actually coming back to rule the actual world the absurdity is just too in-your-face for anyone to miss.

Speaking of which, here’s an extract from the Q and A on his website:

Have you been to heaven before?

No, but I am trying to serve a God who I know is loved and worshipped in heaven. In heaven there's no tears, no more crying, no more pain, there will be no sea either. The sea has always stood for violence. There will be no buildings because God Almighty will be giving it light and sun so that will be my destination. I also hope you'll join me when I get there!

What kind of a ridiculous question is that? And more to the point, there will be no sea in heaven because the sea means violence? What the hell? Revelation 21:1 is presumably his source for this information, although the following verse does seem to imply buildings, or else the “holy city” will be a major let-down. There will be no sea in heaven, and no buildings. And no cuttlefish, and no two of spades. And none of those little figure-of-eight power adapters. And no brie. What kind of bizarre, arbitrary paradise is this? I like buildings! I like the sea!