Religion and politics  

Did I ever mention that I might easily have been born somewhere in South America? When my parents were engaged, my father wanted to become a missionary there. I think he had Bolivia in mind for some reason. They both started to go to classes to learn Spanish, but then the second world war came along and so that all fell by the wayside.

They both of course remained committed Christians during their lifetimes and we quite often provided accommodation for visiting missionaries who were home on furlough. It was a little unusual that the version of Christianity to which my parents subscribed didn’t have any wish to take or exercise political power. Their attempts to influence people were confined to trying to persuade them to become Christians. They believed in voting: it was a civic duty, but they were not involved in political parties because St Paul said that the followers of Christ were 'pilgrims in a foreign land'.

This is in contrast to many later versions of Christianity which become integrated into the state. They all saw themselves as, at the very least, having a role in guiding the state authority: they insisted that their brand of morality be reflected in the laws of the land.

And the further back we go, the greater the power exercised, whether by Popes, Archbishops or, in countries with other religions, their equivalents. A lot of this was based on these religious representatives being the emissary of their god and so, potentially, wielding supernatural power, something now difficult to imagine, particularly in the case of the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, a former oil industry executive.

But, after a period in the second half of the 20th century when people had increasingly accepted the division between state and religion, the religious are now again seeking power, especially in America, but not only there.

And what is really strange is that they do this in the company of the extreme right, instead of working for the social good of the people alongside left-wing parties. The fact that this has happened is, in my opinion, a consequence of the very liberal 'woke' moral views insisted upon by most of the political left and the diametrically opposed views of many religious people.

The legalisation of homosexuality, followed by civil unions and then same-sex marriage and gender self-identification were the triggers for this change.

In the days when the Left was willing to work on social issues and largely accepted the traditional moral code, the religious were happy not to get too involved in politics, but to participate in providing support for the disadvantaged.

But things have changed. The religious folk now find their values under threat mainly from the left. And so they have instead become bed-fellows with the right, those who vehemently resist social change and sexual liberation.

That the right tend to object to the provision of help for the poor is something which the religious have to accept if they are going to attempt to preserve an otherwise biblical morality in society – although perhaps more old testament than new testament.

And the new order allows the right to benefit from religion’s investment in influence over the state across the centuries. And so, in Italy, we have La Meloni proclaiming traditional Catholic family values and Salvini clutching his rosary beads while trying to make life as difficult as possible for immigrants. What happened to: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me? ’.

And we also now see the woke left rejecting the former front-runner, Kate Forbes, for the position of leader of the SNP because she is an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian – a member of the ‘wee frees’, the Presbyterian Church in Scotland.

Members believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible: they do not accept that evolution can possibly have occurred. I don’t think they like to be happy in the exercise of their faith either: they only recently allowed the singing of hymns in Church.

She is the daughter of former missionaries to India and has made it clear that she is against sex outside marriage and would not have voted for same-sex marriage or the law purporting to allow gender self-identification in Scotland. Fortunately for her she was on maternity leave (as a married woman) when that bill was passed and wasn’t an MSP when same sex marriage was approved.

But she has said that, as leader of the SNP she would not seek to change either law. That though is not sufficient for our secular ethicists, where it is vital that those in charge all have ‘acceptable’ views. What is ‘acceptable’ of course changes with the weather.

So then just as, particularly in America, the Catholics and evangelical wing of the Protestant Church try to impose their views on the rest of society, so their secular counterparts there and here in the UK attempt to do essentially the same thing, labelling religious people as bigots. Something of an irony.

And we have not yet mentioned Northern Ireland, a land overflowing with religion. And which, at the moment, suffers mainly from Protestantism and the religion of Brexit.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is the progeny of the Reverend Dr Ian Paisley, or 'Doctor No' as he was known, although it was never clear where his doctorate came from. He created a version of fundamentalist Protestantism similar to the Wee Frees in Scotland.

The party based its support on Protestants' hatred of Catholics in Northern Ireland. Their insistence on maintaining union with Britain is based on the premise that its abandonment would inevitably mean union with Ireland, with the religious consequences they believe this would entail.

In years gone by Ireland was a very Catholic country although now, since the numerous paedophilia scandals involving the Catholic church, religion has ceased to be a significant factor there.

This change has had no effect on the DUP, however. Being a remarkably conservative organisation, they are unable to see the world as it actually is. They are instead caught up in the isolation of their prayer meetings.

As implacable Brexiteers they have sacrificed the provision of government for the benefit of the people at Stormont on the alter of their determination to have a pure form of Unionism. This is the sort which, because of their Brexit, cannot actually exist, despite the promises of Johnson and Frost to the contrary.

They fear that if they live under even nominal influence from Brussels, then the people of Northern Ireland will eventually succumb to the blandishments of the republicans and vote for a united, and so a Catholic, Ireland.

So then, we can see that what I call the 'religious' mentality is, in general, inflexible, conservative and opposed to basing our actions on evidence. It can be tied to a recognised religion or simply to secular rules of life - a secular version of deist religion.

It produces what we have discussed and much more, from communism in all its forms onwards.

Of course, not all religious people fit this description. Many who subscribe to true religions
are looking for an other-worldly justification of their wish that we be kind towards others or participate peripherally, perhaps just wishing to have the reassurance of a heavenly father (sorry, parent) who will welcome them at the end of this life.

But there are many 'religious' believers in positions of power. This means that we see the kind of backward societies that exist around the world where religion, in any of its myriad forms, is in charge: Russia, China, much of Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

Others, like Ireland and Italy, are doing their best to recover from the days when they were fiefdoms of the Catholic Church.

How though can we defeat the spread of such narrow, uncritical thinking?

Gad Saad, a marketing professor at Concordia University, Canada, has recently published a paper called “The corrosive effects of idea pathogens”, an attempt to analyse the thinking of those who make foolish claims. He argues that “a superficially enticing set of idea pathogens has parasitised countless people in the West leading us resolutely towards the abyss of infinite lunacy”.

So I'm not sure Saad sees much hope for an easy cure. I'd like to think he was wrong, but that might just indicate a form of residual religious thinking in me...

24 February 2023

Paul Buckingham

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