Thursday, January 19, 2017

I'm not okay, you're not okay

I don't do many of these Goddy posts any more (a paltry four in the whole of 2016, though to be fair there weren't that many posts of any kind during 2016 - compare this with eight in 2015 and a whopping twenty-four in the childless blogging glory glory days of 2007), but this was too good to allow to pass without comment: savour with me, if you will, the rich creamy deliciousness of full-fat cognitive dissonance as some groovy vicar type decides to incorporate a reading from the Koran in a Christian Epiphany service in Glasgow and then gets all surprised when people are outraged at the fact that the text contradicts standard Christian teaching.

Basically what happened was that a young Muslim woman was invited to do a reading at the service, in the interests of some fluffy ill-thought-out ideas about "inclusivity" and/or "interfaith dialogue", and read (or sang, depending which account you read - the video embedded here reveals it's sort of in the eye/ear of the beholder) a passage from the section of the Koran concerning Christ's birth. The reading was in the original Arabic, so would have been incomprehensible to most of the attendees, but someone identified it and controversy ensued.

The differences between Biblical and Koranic orthodoxy on the question of Christ's birth are fairly minimal, to the disinterested observer anyway - although obviously the ability to get murderously irate over minor doctrinal differences is pretty much the defining feature of organised religions throughout history. Anyway, there's broad agreement over what happened, but the Koran goes out of its way to make the specific point that despite the whole virgin birth thing Christ was not the son of God as the Bible insists. I suppose I have to concede that the divinity of Christ is fairly central to Christian theology - the clue is in the name "Christian", after all. What I mean by "minimal" above is that there's no dispute in either religion about the claim that there was a woman called Mary who had a baby by mysterious means who was called Jesus Christ.

Anyway, the amusing thing here is firstly the apparent surprise that different religions make differing claims about the world, and secondly the general flappery over what the appropriate response is. Can we call it "blasphemy" for the central claims of one religion to be repeated in the worshipping-place of another? Not only might that be deemed "disrespectful", it also seems to set us off down what might be a bit of an unpalatable slippery slope: it almost sounds like the Christians are saying that their version of the story is true, and the Islamic version isn't (and, similarly, that the Muslims are saying the exact opposite). That's not the kind of "interfaith dialogue" the groovy vicar brigade want at all.

The tricky balancing act anyone claiming to be offended here has to tread is explaining why repeating some of the basic tenets of Islam is OK in a mosque, or Sainsbury's, but not OK in a Christian church, while simultaneously avoiding any consideration of how the conflict might be resolved. Should Christians take Muslims aside and try to explain why they're wrong? If so, what convincing arguments in favour of their own position should they muster? There's a paper-thin distance between trying that and implicitly acknowledging that there might be a thing called "reality" against which fact claims could be verified to see whether they're true or not (and, moreover, that if they do turn out to be true they're as true in Westminster Abbey as they are in Mecca, or indeed Sainsbury's), and furthermore that there is a third possibility, which is that both religions could be wrong. It's always worth pointing out at this point that there is just about no proper historical evidence that a person matching the various descriptions of Jesus Christ ever existed.

Vaguely connected to that, here's a little texty-graphical meme (which may have originated here) of the sort that people love to share on Facebook, and sure enough a couple of my friends shared it in the run-up to Christmas. I charitably assume it's because they were amused by the bit at the end relating to Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, rather than because they thought the bits preceding it were sensible or worth sharing.

The first couple of paragraphs sound, if you don't think about them too much, sensible enough in a hey-let's-just-all-get-along-the-world-is-like-a-great-big-onion kind of way, and certainly the bits about homophobia and reindeer-bullying are perfectly fine to all right-thinking people. But wait, let's just go back to the start: it's not okay to say that the claims about the world made by religions are false? How would that work? Maybe we're meant to focus on the words "shaming" and "silly" and imagine marauding bands of atheists interrupting church services to point and laugh at the congregation and hijack the pulpit for readings from The God Delusion, as has happened precisely never ever. I mean, I agree that that would be an unreasonably dickish way to behave, but it is implicit in the definition of the word "atheist" that you think religions believe stuff that is not real, and it's hardly reasonable to require that we never mention it, especially given the amount of time the devout spend tediously banging on about their inane beliefs.

Even if you exclude atheists from being able to speak in public forever, you've still got a problem: just about every religion's set of core tenets contains at least one which implicitly refutes at least one core tenet of another religion somewhere. You can believe, for instance, that the Christian God created the world (maybe in seven actual days, maybe in seven metaphorical "days" conveniently corresponding to actual cosmological/geological time), or you can believe that the world was formed from the flesh, blood and bones of Ymir by various Norse gods, or you can believe that the entire universe was sneezed out by the Great Green Arkleseizure, but you can't believe more than one of them, and whichever one you choose you're implicitly saying the other two are untrue.

So, in summary, criticising religion is not okay, and since religions themselves implicitly do this, religions themselves are not okay. But of course saying this constitutes criticism of religion, which is not okay. Uh-oh.

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