Forget the carping, the special pleading and the moans of faith groups. Reason, free thinking and a sense of humour do the job
In a crowing column concerning Tony Blair’s pending, and less than surprising, conversion to the Church of Rome, Catholic journalist Christina Odone (if you don't know her, this will give you a fair idea of her views) admits she can’t resist some “triumphalism” because this is payback for “a persecuted minority, who have been kicked, mocked and hissed at.” Eh? Since when have Catholics been a persecuted minority in Britain? No doubt things have been sticky for papists in the historical past, but it wasn’t that great for the heretics either and you don’t hear them still complaining. Is Odone sure that when people are hissing at her it’s because she is Catholic? It seems that Catholics have taken their cue from a growing bandwagon of religious human rights groups. The assumption is that you have a right to be listened to only if you claim to speak for an oppressed faith group with an over-developed sense of historical grievance.
This new trend for self-interested belligerence makes western Europe, the supposed home of free thought and rational, disinterested debate, look more and more like the India described by Meera Nanda in her review of a new book on Indian Fundamentalism (page 44): “One vast smorgasbord of hostile, back-to-back religious communities, each with a chip on their shoulder.” In this environment even Hindus, who make up 85 per cent of the population and dominate the government, can claim to be victims.
A piquant historical irony is at work here. The only place where sectarianism doesn’t seem to be on the rise is in the part of Britain most associated with it. As columnist Newton Emerson writes on page 12, the recent debate in Northern Ireland over homosexuality might be trivial in terms of content, but the way in which it has been conducted is profound, and cause for some optimism. For the first time, he says, a moral debate which would traditionally have been dominated by competing religious claims is being conducted in a secular, non-sectarian fashion. There are signs of a political maturity that seems to be on the wane elsewhere.
Amidst the competition to be the most offended, the most worthy of compensation and “respect” (a codename for special treatment, as often as not) it’s therefore worth reasserting the importance of rational debate and free thought. Rationalism is not about deciding in advance what is rational and then toeing the line. It’s about using reason dynamically in debate, listening as much as declaring. It is allied with free thought, which acts as an antibody against stagnation, preventing values from becoming dogma, ideas ideology.
Reason and freethinking, of course, run throughout this issue as AC Grayling takes on John Gray’s anti-humanism on page 34, Danny Postel remembers the radical relativism of Richard Rorty (page 38) and Roger Griffin dares to look afresh at the art of the Nazis (Page 21). Daniel Miller, in our centre pages, introduces the work of architect Eyal Weizman, whose mapping of the West Bank shows how the encamped ideologies of the region have been made concrete in the built environment.
None of these powerful contributions expresses a party line any more than this editorial does. They are there to be engaged and argued with. If you disagree fire off a letter. We want more debate, more argument, more passion. But more special pleading? No thanks.