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Confessions of an anti-theocrat who lost her way and found it again

February 26, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

It’s a funny old thing, growing up in a theocracy. Maybe not funny so much as –  a little bit shit.

Of course, like most things, it depends what side you’re on and how it all turns out. It’s probably more accurate for me to say that it’s a funny old thing to look back on having grown up in a family that was in virulent opposition to a prevailing, if mild, theocracy.

I was born in Ireland the year before we legalised contraception, which was the first time politicians took a political step in opposition to the bishops. Or, to put it another way, the year before Iran became a significantly less mild theocracy. The longer I live, the more firmly I find myself calibrating my values against those I grew up with. Because, you know, the world is ON FIRE and so I need to check a compass and reorient myself occasionally.

These are the conclusions: I will fight for the separation of church and state, for freedom from (opposed to ‘of’) religion, for logic and reason and science, for the right of free expression, for women’s rights, LGBT rights, the right to dissent; all of those rights that religions, when riding a power high, tend to tapdance over. This is what I am made of. This is what a mild theocracy made me.

This is what I am willing to concede, having grown old and comfortable and soft and secure: religions, when deprived of power and watched carefully – as you might a small spider in the corner of a room – are a source of comfort through the trials of this bloody life and the problematic issue of mortality, and can provide a positive impetus towards some kind of social conscience.

But I grew up experiencing just the faintest aroma of what religion – religious autocratic power – will take when it has the opportunity. My spidey sense is, I like to imagine, finely honed, buzzing infallibly when a religiously motivated figure appears on the horizon. George W Bush. Ruth Kelly. Anne Widecombe. Nadine Dories.

The left – my left, the happy echo chamber of my beloved liberal metropolitan elite – joins me in my suspicion. I, more-elitist-than-thou, sift through their disapproval and judge it in turn. Are they picking on conservatives? Are they picking on women? Are their anti-theocratic credentials as pure as mine?

We are idiots.

I live in a society afraid to publish religious cartoons. I live in a society afraid to criticize deeply, deeply conservative religious structures, their impact on children, on women, on culture. I live in a society of self-imposed blasphemy laws. I live in a society where I’m reluctant to repost my favourite weekly cartoon (that would be the terrible twosome, Jesus and Mo) from my Facebook account, and in which its genius author remains anonymous for very practical reasons. No one else posts it on Facebook either, although it has a lot of fans amongst my friends. I live in a society where we are horribly reluctant to contemplate our reasons for this.

 

In 2006, I made mealy-mouthed excuses when it came to the Danish cartoons, and for the refusals to reprint them. Not excusing violence, no no. But should they really have been commissioned? Was publication not an act of provocation? I said that. I thought it. I followed down a logical path from a to b to c of what I believed were my values, until I found myself in a place so far removed from them that it felt – wrong. Upside down.

 

I was eleven when Salman Rushdie was given a death sentence for writing a book. My moral compass was still pretty clear. I liked books, and the whole story had the sound of Bad Nuns. This was wrong. Demands to withdraw the book were wrong. Pressure not to read or sell it were surely wrong. Burning the book and threatening to kill the writer? That was a no brainer to an eleven year old.

 

And yet at twenty eight my position on The Cartoons was ambivalent. No, that’s an equivocation. Ambivalent suggests a carefully weighed set of vectors that have been sorted through and found to be in balance. The truth was: there are few things more precious to me than satire and literature and culture. There are few things I feel greater fundamental distrust for than religious power. And yet.

And yet.

The echo chamber is powerful. We form our views, look around, check we’re where we’re supposed to be. Form more views on the next event. Look around. Check we’re still on the right path. See the people we know around us, in agreement. More importantly, check out those who disagree. It’s all good. The Actual Fascists are on the other side. Politicians I currently disagree with are on the other side. Marin Amis, well he’s a good writer but fundamentally sociopathic and bloody dreadful on women. I am in disagreement with these people, therefore I’m in the right place.

 

One day you look down. You look up. You check the compass and realise you travelled 180 degrees and are supporting, in a reluctant, feels-wrong-to-the-pit-of-your-stomach, everything you hate against everything you love.

And you can’t really find any excuses or reasons, other than that it was easy. There was a sign, indicating natural direction of travel, and it turned out to be a slide. And you can never again hold in such utter contempt people going through the real life experience of double think. You think about it in the second person because it’s weird.

 

Here’s what it’s like on the other side: it is impossible not to spot the ability of British society to hold in casual contempt some religions, while shying away with remarkable precision from others. Mostly this is irritating, because when I change my mind, I am ready for everyone else to catch up quickly. Sometimes it comforts me – I’m not on my own when it comes to That One Time I Was Wrong.

 

It’s natural to feel most at ease with critiquing what on some level feels like ‘your own’ whether or not that thing was ever personally yours. I will insult my family, but you may not. I’ll buy that. But I won’t buy it entirely. That would leave the naturally-anti-theocratically-inclined of the UK left comfortable with critiquing Anglicanism, which is scarcely worth the trouble of critiquing, although people find the energy for an opinion on women bishops. It shouldn’t so easily cover condemnation of the pope. By people who can summon contrarian empathy for the IRA and somehow know Irish rebel songs that make me leave a room. Whose every political instinct condemns the British empire and its legacy, and supports the countries and cultures left behind by it. But the pope is a ****. Because AIDS, and Africa, and condoms. Other things too. I agree with them entirely. I agree with them beat for beat. But a disconnect still lingers.

Critique of school systems in the UK where religious doctrine dominates or where children are taught religion to the detriment of core subjects seems to have become the preserve of the right, with some honourable exceptions. Saying ‘it sounds a lot like fascism if a paper is too afraid to publish a cartoon’ seems to be the preserve of the right. We will find our way back to a robust opposition to religion in schools, but only because the Conservative government seems intently committed the virtue of Christian schools, few of which will replace most of the curriculum with theology. We will find our way back to a defense of the enlightenment and education over evangelism – the secular salvation of children, if you will – but it’s going to feel paltry and late.

 

It cuts deep. It cuts deep because it took me on a journey I regret having gone on, a tidal drag from a set of principles I still believe in and that I still believe we need if we are to get through the years ahead. (The world is ON FIRE, people.) It cuts because I have some small inkling of what it is to be the rebel underdog family in the middle of a culturally religious majority. Because it lingers, somewhere, the resentment, the chip-on-shoulder. It smolders away and I still count every win and obsess about losses. I have always maintained a low-level anxiety about how easily our post-enlightenment, post-civil-rights (not-quite-there-yet-but-we’ll-get-there) consensus could be lost, even in this world that has seemed to glide closer and closer to my values. I have never thought of it as certain; post civil rights gains have always felt fragile and historically unlikely.

I can’t imagine how that chip would have stacked up had the virtuous voices with which I largely agreed on most things sung from the hymnbook of how important it was to respect that religious majority around me and mine rather than our small voices of dissent. A raging bonfire of spitting fury, is my best guess.

Somewhere in the need to support the underdog, the left lost sight of the underdogs within theocratic communities and countries. The unbelievers. The apostates. The reformers. The voices of dissent.

 

My people.

These days they get named as hate figures by the Southern Poverty Law Centre. And the left – my left – does not rise with a mighty roar and mock the SPLC into a retraction. ‘You mixed up the oppressors and the resistance!’ shouted far too few people.

 

Here is what I know.

My people, my incompatible antagonistic Venn diagram of impossible optimism crossed with contrarianism, was always capable of holding the following doublethink safely in our heads: to condemn the pope and the orthodox theology of Catholicism was not to condemn or oppress practising, believing Catholics. It would take a very special idiot to confuse these things. Those who decried the Catholic position on condom use in Africa were not seeking to oppress or condoning the oppression of Catholics in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Italy or France. This did not have to be stated or argued. It was too obvious to mention.

If we are right when we feel a visceral level of contempt for a religious institution whose obsession with theological purity refused to falter in the face of a continent ravaged by AIDS, which opposes LGBT rights, which would make a woman carry a dying child to term. Then – why?

You know the question.

Do I dare disturb the universe, do I dare to eat a peach.

Do you dare to post a cartoon?

2011-01-13

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