I’ve been saying this for years, but it is hard to square with what we see at the neighbourhood Presbyterian or Baptist church. There it is all love and flower arrangements, saccharine hymns and fake, or even, sometimes, genuine friendliness and neighbourly affection. It’s hard for us to think of these peaceful and more or less loving people as taking point for a totalising ideology. Nothing to fear there. And, in truth, that is as often the case as not, for Christianity had, for the most part, had its teeth pulled a few centuries ago, though it is recognising itself more confidently of late as “the church militant” here on earth. Perhaps that is what prompted Giles Fraser’s latest Guardian column: “Wickedness, allied to the ‘truth’ of religious belief, can lead us to evil acts.”
The brutal attack in Woolwich has prompted in me thoughts of how wickedness, allied to the “truth” of religious belief, can lead men to heinous acts. For it is this sense of having access to the truth that makes religion the dangerous phenomenon that it so often is. Most of the terrible things human beings do to each other originate in a sense of moral conviction.
Though, given the first sentence of his opening paragraph, it is hard to see why he didn’t say: Most of the terrible things human beings do to each other originate in a sense of religious conviction. Let’s take it as read, though, that the certainty of having achieved the truth leads people often to do terrible things. But notice the scare quotes around the word ‘truth’ in that opening sentence. For the truth is that religion, of all human activities, is the most likely to lead people to the conviction that they know the truth in a way that others do not and cannot know it – unless, that is, they are willing to join the believers in proclaiming the truth that believers claim to know. And the problem with this kind of truth is that it is based, indeed, it must be based, on inadequate evidence, if anything about religious belief can be claimed to have evidence at all. But the kind of certainty that is based on religious conviction held upon inadequate evidence or no evidence at all, is of such a kind that it could easily (or even inevitably) lead to evil acts.
Let’s begin with Pope Ratzinger’s New Year’s message, celebrating the World Day of Peace. I need to quote at length, because it is important to get the whole miserable picture in order to understand the kind of certainty, and the kind of totalising ideology that this creates. Here are three paragraphs from the message:
Those who insufficiently value human life and, in consequence, support among other things the liberalization of abortion, perhaps do not realize that in this way they are proposing the pursuit of a false peace. The flight from responsibility, which degrades human persons, and even more so the killing of a defenceless and innocent being, will never be able to produce happiness or peace. Indeed how could one claim to bring about peace, the integral development of peoples or even the protection of the environment without defending the life of those who are weakest, beginning with the unborn. Every offence against life, especially at its beginning, inevitably causes irreparable damage to development, peace and the environment. Neither is it just to introduce surreptitiously into legislation false rights or freedoms which, on the basis of a reductive and relativistic view of human beings and the clever use of ambiguous expressions aimed at promoting a supposed right to abortion and euthanasia, pose a threat to the fundamental right to life.
There is also a need to acknowledge and promote the natural structure of marriage as the union of a man and a woman in the face of attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different types of union; such attempts actually harm and help to destabilize marriage, obscuring its specific nature and its indispensable role in society.
These principles are not truths of faith, nor are they simply a corollary of the right to religious freedom. They are inscribed in human nature itself, accessible to reason and thus common to all humanity. The Church’s efforts to promote them are not therefore confessional in character, but addressed to all people, whatever their religious affiliation. Efforts of this kind are all the more necessary the more these principles are denied or misunderstood, since this constitutes an offence against the truth of the human person, with serious harm to justice and peace. [my emphasis]
The kicker, of course, is in that last paragraph. Notice how smoothly Ratzinger makes the transition from speaking directly to the Roman Catholic Church’s pro-life and marital ideals to the statement that these are not “truths of faith,” and therefore, we are to understand, “not … confessional in nature.” Hence they are, we are also given to understand, binding on all people without exception. Lawmakers, politicians and others are therefore expected to accord unusual respect to these principles, for they are “inscribed in human nature itself,” and, as such, binding on all people. These are not truths of faith, but simply the truth about human nature, without qualification. Observing this truth, we are told, is necessary in order to preserve peace. One is reminded of “Mother” Teresa’s extraordinary claim (upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize) that abortion is the biggest threat to world peace! (Which led one to wonder why the diminutive zealot had been awarded the prize in the first place.)