Tuesday, July 26, 2005

July 25, 2005

The Questions You May Not Ask

When's it okay to ask a would-be public official about his or her spiritual beliefs?

Senator: Judge Roberts is it true that before you make a major judicial decision you consult Tarot cards?

Well, of course, as a practicing Catholic, I seriously doubt Judge Roberts has even a passing familiarity with Tarot cards, so that's just ridiculous.

But what if there were hard evidence that a Supreme Court nominee was smitten by the occult, wouldn't it be important to probe those beliefs? And, if those beliefs centered around Tarot Cards, Quiji boards, channeling the long dead, fortune telling or astrology, you can bet your sweet bippy the nominee would be grilled to a turn. Such unconventional superstitious beliefs make us nervous when they are espoused by public officials. (Remember the flap over Nancy Reagan and her astrologer? )

But what about that? What about public officials' belief in things supernatural? How far can we go, how far should we go, in probing the beliefs of those who would lead our nation or make the rules by which we are governed? Does a belief that human events are influenced by extra-judicial, supernatural forces, matter?

The confirmation process for a new Supreme Court justice is always a dicy affair. Everyone dances around hot button social/religious issues like abortion. Everyone tries to find out how the nominee feels about such issues without coming right out and asking. Instead they try to read the tea leaves in the nominees past statements and/or decisions.

But a nominee -- any nominee -- is ultimately the product of what he or she believes most deeply. So why can't we ask what it is they believe most deeply?

No can do.

Even as America's fundamentalist Christians demand and get more and more access to the public square, we are told we cannot probe their belief structure. To do so, we are told, would be worse than impolite, it's downright ignorant and bigoted. Even though their beliefs shape their decisions in office, we have no right to question them -- or those belief's basis in fact or fantacy.

Wait, that's not exactly true. Not every superstition is untouchable. If a nominee were, say, a practicing Scientologist his or her beliefs would be fair game for questioning. How about a practicing fundamentalist Mormon who upholds the "holy" right of bigamy? You can bet there'd be some questions about that. Or a funadmentalist Muslim who believes women should have almost none of the rights men enjoy? Wanna bet he'd get his empty head handed to him on a Senatorial platter?

What about a practicing witch, or a member of the Church of Satan? I could just hear the screams of outrage from the right! They'd eat those "pagans" for lunch.

Superstitious beliefs that are out of the mainstream are fair game. And, those who publicly espouse such beliefs are almost always excluded from high public office -- and thank goodness for it. If such "wierdos" ever made it as far as a Senate confirmation hearing the Senators would elbow one another aside to get the first digs in – on camera.

So why do Christian nominees, like Judge John Roberts, get a pass? If he is, as reported, devoutly religious, why are his superrnatural beliefs off limits? Simple; some superstitions more equal than others. There are "mainstream" superstitions and there are those "nutty" ones. I mean, come on, what kind of nut would consult a Quiji board when they could pray to an all-powerful pretend-friend in "heaven?" One belief is nutty, the other, while just as nutty, is "mainstream."

Test given: The guy who consults the Quiji board would not be qualified to serve on the Supreme Court while the other guy would be qualified.

Something's whacky there.

I only mention all this because mainstream Christians are just as prone to believing utter nonsense as the rest of the metaphyical lot. And I don't like being governed in troubled times like these by people who still believe in primitive, Mother Goose-ish fables about angels, devils, miracles, judgment days and similar voodoo, be it mainstream or otherwise.

The fastest way to rid ourselves of superstition in government is to break the taboo and openly question such beliefs in those seeking high public office. Currently we can't ask, we can't probe because "they" hold the presumed moral – if not intellectual – high-ground. That misconceived notion has created a situation in which almost every candidate for public office now must either be, (or pretend to be,) "a person of faith."

But what if the taboo against asking were lifted? What if we could probe, even challenge, their beliefs?

"You say you're a person of faith. That's nice, but faith in what? Tell us about it. Do you really believe that, in spite of everything science has learned over the past couple of centuries, the earth is really only 6000 years old? How do you square that with the facts? Are the scientists just wrong and your, totally unsubstantiated, beliefs right? When the science is at odds with your faith, do you believe that's the work of Satan?"

If we could do that you can bet fewer and fewer candidates would trot out their superstitions for public view – and review.

Anyway, I have gone on too long with this rant. I was just going to write a paragraph introducing a wonderful piece on this subject that appeared in the Guardian last week. Got carried away.

Sorry about that. But here it is. It's fabulous.

In the name of God

"Blair has appeased and prevaricated. Now, as the Islamic death cult strikes again, he must oust religion from public life."

Polly Toynbee
Friday July 22, 2005
The Guardian

Two weeks on, London is stricken once more. The death cult strikes again, unstoppable in its deranged religious mania. This time no deaths but a savage reminder of the unknown waves of demented killers lining up to murder in the name of God.

Whatever they intended, the message was loud and clear: they can and will do this whenever they want and it does indeed spread very real terror. The police have said there are many more of them. The security services have already revealed that they know absolutely nothing.

In the growing fear and anger at what more may be to come, apologists or explainers for these young men can expect short shrift. This is not about poverty, deprivation or cultural dislocation of second-generation immigrants. There is plenty of that and it is passive. Iraq is the immediate trigger, but this is about religious delusion.

All religions are prone to it, given the right circumstances. How could those who preach the absolute revealed truth of every word of a primitive book not be prone to insanity? There have been sects of killer Christians and indeed the whole of Christendom has been at times bent on wiping out heathens. Jewish zealots in their settlements crazily claim legal rights to land from the Old Testament. Some African Pentecostal churches harbour sects of torturing exorcism and child abuse. Muslims have a very long tradition of jihadist slaughter. Sikhs rose up to stop a play that exposed deformities of abuse within their temples. Buddhism too has its sinister wing.

See how far-right evangelicals have kidnapped US politics and warped its secular, liberal founding traditions. Intense belief, incantations, secrecy and all-male rituals breed perversions and danger, abusing women and children and infecting young men with frenzy, no matter what the name of the faith.

Enlightenment values are in peril not because these mad beliefs are really growing but because too many rational people seek to appease and understand unreason. Extreme superstition breeds extreme action. Those who believe they alone know the only way, truth and life will always feel justified in doing anything in its name. You would, wouldn't you, if you alone had the magic answer to everything? If religions teach that life after death is better then it is hardly surprising that some crazed followers will actually believe it.

Moderates of these faiths may be as gentle as the carefully homogenised Thought for the Day preachers. But other equally authentic voices of religion, the likes of Ian Paisley or Omar Bakri Muhammad, represent a virulent intolerance that is airbrushed out by an official intellectual conspiracy to pretend that religion is always or mainly beneficent. History suggests otherwise. So do events on the streets of London. Meanwhile the far left, forever thrilled by the whiff of cordite, has bizarrely decided to fellow-travel with primitive Islamic extremism as the best available anti-Americanism around. (Never mind their new friends' views on women, gays and democracy.)

It is time now to get serious about religion - all religion - and draw a firm line between the real world and the world of dreams. Tony Blair has taken entirely the wrong path. He has appeased, prevaricated and pretended, maybe because he is a man of faith himself, with a Catholic wife who consorts with crystals. But never was it more important to separate the state from all faiths and relegate all religion to the private - but well-regulated - sphere.

Instead David Blunkett said he wished he could spread the ethos of religious schools everywhere and Labour has done just that. The 3% of the population who are Muslim may well feel excluded in a country that makes so many special allowances for Christians when slightly more Muslims go to the mosque than Anglicans attend a church once a week.

A third of all state schools are religious. The National Secular Society, a lone voice in monitoring their onward march, reports that Labour has let 40 more nonreligious state secondaries be taken over by the Church of England in the last four years, with another 54 about to go. The Office for the Schools Adjudicator said in a recent report that the only reason faith schools often achieve better results is because of "their practice of selection from churchgoing families". That attracts the pretend churchgoers, but selection, not religion, is the magic.

In the face of this hypocrisy it seems a small thing to let Muslims have more schools too. Only this week Ruth Kelly (devout herself) announced plans to go ahead in her autumn white paper with more Muslim schools. Bombs, she said, would not stop her policy of offering more "choice" and allowing more faith groups, including Muslims, to run schools. A Hindu state school will open soon in Harrow.

But this is not choice. Only yesterday an angry email arrived from a parent on the south coast protesting that the only choice of primary school was a C of E, a Catholic and an oversubscribed ordinary school. Disqualified from the first two, failing to get into the third, their child is sent miles across town; three nonreligious schools would have been genuine choice. A YouGov poll shows that more than half of voters oppose this. While Northern Ireland struggles with sectarianism festering in religious schools, this is no time to foster yet more segregation.

So what do we do about the madmen? Bombs do change things, maybe not in the extremists' favour. A great shift in attitude seems to have swept through many Muslim groups who signed the full-page newspaper statement yesterday headed "Not in Our Name". Many were equivocators on the fatwa that had Salman Rushdie locked away for years. At the time Iqbal Sacranie himself said: "Death, perhaps, is too easy for him ... his mind must be tormented for the rest of his life unless he asks forgiveness to Almighty Allah." Nowadays Sir Iqbal is a leading moderate, showing how tolerance grows, given a chance.

The statement read: "We will not allow our faith to be hijacked by a few extremists. British Muslims should not be held responsible for the acts of a few individuals." Entirely right . Yet - like members of the same family - like it or not they are stuck with responsibility for rooting out wild men hiding in their midst and questioning what elements of their religious practice have proven so lethal. But no one can police minds and no new draconian laws to silence thinkers and preachers will ever stop dangerous ideas.

All the state can do is hold on to secular values. It can encourage the moderate but it must not appease religion. The constitutional absurdity of an established church once seemed an irrelevance, but now it obliges similar privileges to all other faiths. There is still time - it may take a nonreligious leader - to stop this madness and separate the state and its schools from all religion. It won't stop the bombing now but at least it would not encourage continued school segregation for generations to come. And it might clear the air of the clouds of hypocrisy, twisted thinking and circumlocution whenever a politician mentions religion.

Email the author: polly.toynbee@guardian.co.uk

Amen Sister Polly

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