Sunday, October 24, 2010

Dishonest to God

The philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock has a new book out called Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics. Last week she took part in the discussion programme Start the Week on Radio Four. Her contribution was subsequently commended by a writer in the Catholic Herald for showing that polite discussion between believers and non-believers is still possible. But one is tempted to ask what in the end politeness has to do with it. Are we supposed to be grateful to those who talk kindly to us while all the time telling us that our views are so abhorrent as to have absolutely no place at all in civilised society?

Warnock is careful to concede the appeal and power of religion, its cathedrals and musical traditions for example. What she seems to find most irksome is that the religious think they have in her words a 'superior right to dictate what is and what is not a law'. But there is a world of equivocation between denying someone a 'superior right to dictate' laws and denying them 'any right to make laws at all'. Despite the reassuringly reasonable tones the underlying message is still the same bossy and intolerant one of Dawkins, Hitchens, or Fry: if you are a believer you should be kept from wielding influence in the public/political sphere. It appears that only the pure free-thinking atheist is capable of delivering the well reasoned dispassionate analysis that political decision-making requires. But in the light of the pope's visit, when Benedict XVI demonstrated a depth of philosophical reasoning and political acumen that most secularists and most politicians can only dream of, such a view looks not only old hat but, to borrow a term from Warnock, just plain silly.

Monday, October 18, 2010

What the Fool says (5)

Philip Pullman clearly sees himself as the atheist's answer to C.S. Lewis and his mission to oppose in Lewis' Narnia books what he dubbed 'one of the most vile moments in the whole of children's literature.' Now this little remark would probably be enough to raise the suspicion that Pullman is a ha'penny short of a shilling but a recent reply he made to an audience in Oxford when asked about the offensive nature of the title of his latest book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ suggests all this celebrity atheist attention has really gone to his head:

"Yes it was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if you open it and read it, you don't have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don't have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or bought, or sold or read. That's all I have to say on that subject."