Well-meaning people in Ireland often like to claim that politics and religion are separate and that religion is synonymous with love, reconciliation and kindness. We know what they mean, but of course they are wrong. From time immemorial, politics has been about power and religion about mind control, “the opiate of the masses”. But Marx’s line underestimated the powers of his ideas to create an alternative social bond against an oppressive state and ultimately an identity. And so religion evolved over time and survived.
Catholics fought Catholics and even the Pope in the name of the same religion but under different Catholic kings. In our islands, when the Reformation broke the Catholic monopoly, the attempt of the English monarchs to create a universal State Church in England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland failed disastrously. The differences between the peoples were expressed in different ideas about what was theoretically the same religion.
The wars of religion in C17 were certainly of power but also of ideas. These ideas ranged from new visions of freedom to the belief that judgment day or the second coming was near, with each faction insisting that it held a monopoly on truth and the right to pass ultimate judgment on all others. The clashes between them were deadly, claiming perhaps as many as 16 million lives in a European population about a tenth of what it is today.
The Enlightenment of the 18 s. confronted religion with new challenges of inquiry, skepticism and rationality. To which religion has often responded with terror and oppression. We can see the theorem in action. The more a belief defies rationality, the greater the passion with which it is held and the hostility shown to those who deny it.
Where are we today with all this? I propose three major changes.
First, in our home islands, the enormous decline in religious observance has indeed been accompanied by a timid growth of a religion of love and kindness. Take the latest jaw-dropping development in Ireland following the abuse scandals.
Demands from Irish Catholics for a major change in the Church’s attitude towards women, LGBTI+ people, divorced or remarried people and single parents have been sent to Rome. They also called for the removal of the rule of compulsory celibacy for priests.
The (country synthesis) document… called for “new models of accountability and leadership that will recognize and facilitate the role of women in particular, as well as that of men.
Former President Mary McAleese on Tuesday night described the document as “explosive, life-altering, dogma-altering, church-altering.”.
An Irish obstacle to a civilized life is well on its way to being removed, although the end game is not yet in sight.
But second, the ying is so often answered by the yang. Islamist extremism took on the militant character of the Christian religious wars of the 17e century. And in America, interfaith fundamentalism has merged with politics to create an imaginary world that denies evidence-based rationality. In response – you can decide for yourself what is reaction and what is revolution – a “woke” hard left condemns the civil rights achievements of the past 80 years and the cures of what we still like to call Western civilization. The doctrines of post-feminism, gender identity and racial consciousness tolerate no contradiction. The clash of the two extremes with the rational order is creating an American just as isolated as the old Deep South, but now widespread across the country.
In the FT, historian Simon Schama’s essay links the murderous attack on novelist Salman Rushdie not only with Islamist terrorism, but also with a contraction of freedom.
Nothing is sacred? Yes, the right to irreverence. The health of a free and democratic society can be measured by its protection against disrespect, so long as the right to offense does not extend to the threat, much less the enactment, of physical harm. My friend Salman Rushdie has long been one of the freest writers of the modern world: his supercharged imaginative expression; the weighty things that his books invite us to ponder defying gravity through the tumultuous acrobatics of his puns. You read Salman and, thinking, you laugh.
A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 79 countries – or 40% of 198 surveyed, including 18 in the Middle East and North Africa alone – have blasphemy laws on their books prosecuting all that is considered a contemptuous religion. Sometimes these laws have had deadly consequences.
The populist discovery of the low boiling point of crowds, easily stoked into verbal or actual violence by demonizing anyone suspected of disrespecting the fatherland, did not help the defense of skepticism.
It was in the United States that the currents of piety and patriotism mixed with such populist force that Christianity and American history are considered indistinguishable from Trumpian law of politics, and any vocal skepticism of either is tantamount to treason. The six current Supreme Court justices who ended Roe v. Wade and allowed a high school football coach to lead public prayers after games had Catholic upbringings and made decisions that were surely informed by convictions. of their faith. The First Amendment to the Constitution directs Congress to “make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” but it also prohibits anything that might restrict its free exercise.
Jefferson was a deist, and the book he wrote on The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was constructed by literally pasting sections of the New Testament together with a razor and glue. Everything that Jefferson considered an affront to reason and a distraction from Jesus’ proper position as an ethical teacher was removed. Snip went to the virgin birth, any mention of the divinity of Jesus, miracles, resurrection and the doctrine of the Trinity. What was left was essentially Jesus as a good egg, morally upright and justly compassionate. Amazingly, a copy of what has been called “The Jefferson Bible” was presented to members of Congress from 1904 well into the 1950s. Nowadays, if anyone actually read it, the book would likely come across the head of its author a Christian fatwa of the holiest rolls of the republican right. All this is no small matter. At stake is the whole relationship between American citizenship and institutionalized religion. On the one hand, national salvation depends on their rapprochement; for the other, the integrity of democracy presupposes keeping them strictly separate.
Third, I think we also see politics as new religions. We see it in a punitive left on the flawless causes of climate change and the jagged edges of equality politics demanding superior rights for minorities. On the right, it is the denial of rational thought, as often with conviction as with cynicism. Fierce battles are fought on social media and death threats are almost routine.
A small consolation to me is that in Northern and Southern Ireland our culture wars no longer enjoy the respect of universal ratification. Maybe – just maybe – we come out the other side, just when so many others are stuck. There is certainly a big difference in scale.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; BBC NI political editor; Commissioning Editor of BBC Radio 4 Current Affairs; Political and Parliamentary Programs Editor, BBC Westminster; former editor of London Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London