Sunday, 19 September 2010

Religious conservatives and religious conservatives

As usual, I have left it until the Pope has left Britain to put forward my opinions on the matter. Let it be known that I have no respect whatsoever for the Catholic Church as an institution. I regard its record of child abuse and other abuses of power as a disgrace, its insistence on celibacy of priests dangerous in the extreme (and, like face-covering and other "Islamic" practices, wholly unjustified by history or the original religious texts), its refusal to accept the ordination of women an equally extreme example of what happens when the defence of a narrow set of societal norms, which have little in themselves to do with religion, against the rest of the world becomes far more important than religious belief itself (again, the parallels with Islam should be clear to everyone outside the worst newspapers in the world). It might well have been different had its hierarchy not run in fear from the full connotations of Vatican II almost as soon as they had been opened, but as the Catholic Church stands I can barely think of a good word to say for it.

So why do I feel slightly uneasy at the tone of some (only some) of the dismissals of the Pope from people I usually respect and agree with? Not because I disagree with them as such, but because I am worried that, out of a wholly understandable desire not to overlap with the kneejerk bigots of the right-wing press, certain people who regard themselves as critics of religious conservatism do not criticise it in all its forms (the only legitimate position on the matter) but are misguidedly soft on religious conservatism when it is practised by people whose religions were imported from the Middle East rather more recently than Christianity, and are willing to play games with people who, if they had power outside their current fiefdoms (which I think is highly unlikely, but not necessarily impossible), would be at least as hostile to the cultural norms of left-liberalism as the Catholic Church, probably more so, and are steeped in a tradition that is much harder to reconcile with left-liberalism than mainstream Christianity, which for all its differences on moral issues shares a more similar grounding in literature and thought than many on both sides are willing to admit.

Oh, of course, I know how natural it feels to want to defend anything the Mail bashes - a letter in that paper at least 13 years ago is the sole reason why I like the Weymouth & Portland council offices infinitely more than they deserve. I know how much they poison everything. I wish the mainstream right in the UK had not been so damaged by its Thatcherite realignment towards virtually uncritical support of Israel, which leaves religious conservatives condemning other religious conservatives - destroying what might otherwise be a very real and natural alliance, if only of convenience - and puts left-liberals in an almost impossible position. And of course, the Express's "MUSLIM PLOT TO KILL POPE" headline was a disgrace to journalism even by their standards. I just feel that it should be conceded that a certain number of people will always want the security and certainty of religious conservatism (note: not wanting it yourself, just recognising the human condition) and that, where rival forms of backwardness are concerned, it might be better to keep a hold on the Christian nurse, because the alternative is a far greater threat to liberal values. Trying to wish out of existence the fact that there are people like that, who have such desires, is a form of deluded utopianism which, as usual with such things, can have deeply counter-productive ends, the opposite of its undeniably progressive aims.

As I say, I endorse and agree with the criticisms of the Catholic hierarchy as dangerously backward and counter-productive where any kind of social progress is concerned; I simply want the same criticisms to be unashamedly aired against certain aspects of Islam (especially when they are really, as with Christian fundamentalism, politics rather than religion). If it is made clear that the criticism is born out of a defence of liberal values, rather than fear of "foreigners" and "outsiders", the right-wing press will want nothing to do with it, and might even rediscover the pre-Thatcher Arabist Toryism which makes far more sense than their current position. But until criticism of religious conservatives is equal and unambiguous - criticising them because they are religious conservatives, not for any other petty and culturally specific reason - I regret to say that I will suspect, albeit from a wholly different starting point, that there may be more truth in Peter Hitchens' suspicion - that extreme atheism is really a cultural cringe at the thought of one's childhood memories and pre-pop cultural inheritance, rather than a genuinely thought-out ideology - that I would like to believe there is. I am - on balance - an agnostic, rather than an atheist. It's the biggest difference in the world, and it doesn't make you a "Christian in denial" as both Hitchens brothers would probably think. It just makes you reasoned and tolerant.


  1. I don't know. A lot of the people prominent in the Arrest the Pope campaign - Hitchens Sr, Peter Tatchell, Johann Hari, Dawkins etc. - are also strong critics of Islam, no? The tendency to which you refer does exist though. I think of Ken Livingstone insinuating that Peter Tatchell was afflicted with anti-Muslim prejudice because of the latter's criticism of Islamic homophobia, or of that Lenin's Tomb chap, Richard Seymour, saying that to focus on the repressive nature of the Iranian regime is to provide ammunition for neoconservative warmongerers. I would believe precisely the opposite. The Left's condemnations of wicked actions by the US lose their moral force and become simply tendentious, if similar criticism is not applied to the wicked actions of others. That being said, it doesn't do either to become too monomaniacal about left-wing double standards, or else you end up with the smug contrarian vacuity of the increasingly mind-numbing Nick Cohen.

  2. Seymour is often excellent and sharp on domestic issues, but internationally he is a terrible example of "the enemy of my enemy" crudity. Nothing can excuse the Iranian regime as it stands, though I think Ahmadinejad is to some extent a monster of "our" creation: inflammatory rhetoric from the West does tend to inspire a siege mentality and far more repression than would be the case otherwise (from your comment I suspect you might agree with this; think of the pre-Bush, pre-WoT late 90s liberalisations which have now been officially excised). But for leftists to make excuses for such a regime is dangerous and delusionary.

    But you're not wrong about Cohen, who it seems can only write one article these days. And he writes it *so fucking badly*. A shame, because I used to cheer him to the skies, in another age.

  3. Cohen's outlook can basically be reduced to: "The Iraq War may have led to the deaths of at least 100,000 people, but that's irrelevant compared to the fact that George Galloway's a twat." Furthermore, his hysterical reactions to any even mildly critical comment about What's Left - I'm thinking especially of the feud that resulted from Johann Hari's extremely even-handed review - lead me to believe that on a personal level he's a bit of a twit too. Chomsky recently called Cohen a maniac who never cites anything, and I think there's an element of truth in that. Did you ever see his drunken outburst at the Orwell Prize a year or two ago? He was going on about how Martin Bright had been pushed out of the New Statesman by Gordon Brown for directing a critical documentary about Ken Livingstone, and how the New Statesman and the Orwell Prize are indicative of some leftist media conspiracy stamping out dissenting voices. Now this is incoherent anyway, given that Gordon Brown, as a supporter of the Iraq war, trangresses the left-wing consensus Cohen is railing against. But within a day or two, Martin Bright himself admitted he had left the New Statesman of his own volition. Cohen just seems to be this person for whom far too often actual facts take a second place to pompous rhetorical ranting with a grave facial expression.