Return to Heretic Songs

The fear of God and real-life horrors of fundamentalist religion

Christopher Lee DraculaHi there. Yes, I’ve been away for a while. Yes, I know, this is supposed to be a monthly column. There’ve been reasons, but I won’t bother you with them just now. Maybe another time.

Meanwhile, picture this:

The final scene of Hammer’s Dracula. Christopher Lee, red-eyed, teeth bared – demonic, imposing, all but immortal; Peter Cushing – stern, upright, but seemingly outmatched.

Until he snatches up two candlesticks and forms them into a crucifix; Lee recoils, cowering, pinned helplessly, to be consumed by the sunlight…

A symbol of good in the face of seemingly insuperable evil.

The power of the cross.

It’s a striking and seductive image. And yet…

This Christmas Eve, Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, head of England and Wales’ Catholic communities, delivered a Midnight Mass sermon. There were many other things he could have chosen to talk about, or criticise, in the conduct of the present government (at some point, I’ll devote a column to those real-life monsters.) Their deliberate targeting of the disabled, for instance, or enriching the already rich while cutting public services, inflicting suffering on the most vulnerable. All decidedly unChristian, I’d have thought.

But no. Instead he chose… the push to legalise gay marriage. He called it ‘totalitarian’; even cited George Orwell.

Well, it’s all too easy to suggest that the millions killed, tortured or silenced by his Church – usually for what amounted to thoughtcrime, although Orwell had yet to invent the term – or the Catholic Church’s wholehearted backing of the Fascists Orwell fought in Spain, might well qualify the Archbishop to speak with authority on the subject of totalitarianism. But his clerical cry of ‘persecution!’ on this topic is a familiar one; it echoes a similar wail from ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, who drew comparisons to that delirious haven of all things gay, Nazi Germany. (Warning: that last sentence may contain traces of sarcasm.)

Memo to Lord Carey, and Archbishop Nichols: Being told you can’t discriminate against another group of people isn’t persecution. And discriminating against others isn’t religious freedom, it’s religious privilege. This has been a public information broadcast.

Of course, it’s not the first time the Catholic Church has cried persecution. Just mention its role in covering up endemic and epidemic child abuse, its intimidation of witnesses and victims, its moving of paedophile priests to new parishes where they could rape and abuse again – a practice the recently resigned Pope Benedict was directly involved in – because the Church’s reputation was more important than protecting children in its care, and up goes the cry of “why do you hate the Church?”

Meanwhile, the US Presidential elections, just past, showcased a terrifying swarm of deranged fundamentalists. Todd Akin’s claim that women couldn’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape”; claims that pregnancies resulting from rape were “a gift from God.” And again, that obsession with homosexuality – the insistence that it was a choice from Herman Cain, a husband who provided ‘reparative therapy’ to cure gayness in the case of Michelle Bachmann.

Rick SantorumAnd – perhaps encapsulating the whole insane spectacle – there was Rick Santorum, who became Mitt Romney’s chief challenger for the Republican nomination. A man who could actually have become President of the most powerful country on Earth. Leaving aside some truly hideous attitudes to women – it was Santorum who described rape pregnancies as a gift from God, and who wanted to prohibit not only abortion, but contraception too – and his Creationist beliefs, this was a man who repeatedly equated consensual same-sex relationships with paedophilia and bestiality.

Is Santorum too stupid to understand the concept of ‘informed consent’, or does he just not register it? It’s a serious question, and I suspect the second answer’s the correct one. It’s of a piece with his Creationism, and it’s what makes this brand of faith so terrifying; it’s not even that facts that don’t fit in with his view of the real world are rejected, it’s that they don’t matter.

The Santorums of this world know that the world was created in six days 6,000 years ago, no matter what carbon dating and the fossil records say; they know that homosexuality is an abomination and a choice, even though no gay person I’ve heard of has ever felt they’ve had a choice about their sexuality, other than to accept it or not. Certainly I’ve never felt I had a choice about being heterosexual.

We’re talking about a view of the world so woefully simplistic it might have been drawn in crayon by a five-year-old; on its own that would be pathetic, but when coupled with the desire to impose it on reality, it becomes terrifying. And when we consider the human consequences of such actions by such people, and their utter indifference shown to them, we’re entering the realm of malignant narcissism. It’s an interesting question as to whether such authoritarian forms of faith attract the narcissistic and psychopathic personality, or whether that kind of fanaticism, born out of a retreat from reality and its complexities that refuse to be packaged into an ideology, simply produces the same effects.

And yes, I know that not all Christians are like this. And I’m perfectly aware of such non-religious tyrannies as Stalinism or the Khmer Rouge (but whose role did Stalin, Pol Pot et al seek to arrogate for themselves when condemning millions to death and torture for the crime of thinking something that these cruel, bigoted men didn’t like, if not that of the Biblical Jehovah? And why should we consider the idea of our fellow humans being consigned to eternal torture for the same offence any less revolting, any more tolerable, just because the dictator is celestial rather than earthbound?).

The point, however, is that when I consider what is evil – what I, the atheist, might mean by that word – all too often I find myself looking at cruelties that don’t just dress in the clothes of faith, but which justify themselves by faith and would not sustain themselves without it.

And yes, there’s Islam, too. Since 9/11 demonisation of Muslims has been used to justify erosion of our civil liberties (control orders, attempts at 90 day detention) and war (Iraq, Afghanistan) – wars also arguably rooted in fundamentalist Christian wank-fantasies. Are all Muslims evil, or culpable of the crimes of the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden or their ilk? Of course not. I live in the North-West of England, home to one of the British Isles’ biggest Muslim communities outside London and I’ve worked with many members of that community – I know, from personal experience, how many kind, decent, humane and intelligent folk there are among that community.  But at the same time, that religion, too, can authorise misogyny, homophobia, hatred and cruelty, and – it has to be said – that whatever my issues with Christianity (though not with the many liberal and humane Christians who I hope represent the mainstream) you can, to put it bluntly, criticise or mock it without the fear that some psychopath will put a bullet in your head.

Don’t take my word for it: ask Salman Rushdie, for example, or the authors of the Danish Muhammad cartoons. I would also say ask Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch director of the film Submission, but he’s dead – gunned down, basically, because he made a ten-minute film. You could also ask the film’s scriptwriter, the Somali ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali – who had to go into hiding and eventually flee abroad following Van Gogh’s murder – or, for that matter, Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan, a fourteen year old girl shot in the head by the murderous cowards of the Taliban. Her crime? Wanting an education. Miraculously (no pun intended) she survived, although the Taliban have vowed to make further attempts on her life, and UK-based Islamic fundamentalists Anjem Choudhury and Omar Bakri Mohammed condemned her as an apostate. Again, the misogyny of the fundamentalist Christian Right is vile and profound, but even cunts like Rick Santorum never sank to that level.

But it’s to Christianity I return, and my own divided feelings. Against the evils and uglinesses listed above, I can counterpose the many Christians I count among my friends, who can reconcile LGBT rights and evolution with their faith, because their faith is about love, compassion and tolerance (although the late Christopher Hitchens cited this as Christianity mutating into the “benign but nebulous humanism” of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Niemoller, or Dr Martin Luther King). I can also counterpose the simple faith that sustained my Welsh grandmother through the loss of her beloved husband during the Second World War, her abandonment by her second husband, the death by Parkinson’s disease of the third, and the hard task of bringing up both my father and his stepbrother on her own, the beauty of passages in the King James Bible (more the prose than the morality, admittedly) or hymns like Abide With Me (which moves, not least, because the lyricist composed it in the face of his own impending death) not just for the language and music, but its expressed hope of a life to come and of something that lasts and sustains even when the vain things of this world pass away.

There’s the appeal, too, of reunion with those I’ve lost – like my grandmother, again, who never got to meet my girlfriend and would have loved her.

And yes – there’s that image of Cushing holding up the cross.

Which brings me back to the closest thing in my life to a faith; my writing.

If the foregoing rant establishes anything, it’s that – at the very least – faith and religion are no guarantees of morality, or of decent or humane behaviour. They’re just as likely to be the root of evil.

And yet I am drawn now, still, to the tale of the weird, the numinous, the supernatural – call it what you will. All of the above poses stark questions for us non-theists who still find ourselves drawn to write tales of the supernatural, the weird, the numinous – call it what you will. Not least because our characters have to face supernatural menace with no religious McGuffin – like Cushing’s candlestick cross – and certainly no faith to serve as a weapon.  Does this mean we condemn ourselves to producing only a literature of anticlimax, or despair?

A fascinating question, but it’s also another one, that I’ll address in my next column.


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