Rationed thought

Martin Newland, until recently the editor of The Daily Telegraph, writes in The Guardian that “it is possible to be religious and rational”. True enough, but it’s a weasly statment. Just because religion and rationality co-exist does not mean that religion and rationality work in harmony.

An analogy: it is possible to be a soldier and compassionate. Soldiers can look after their comrades, orphaned birds, enemy wounded, but put them in a battle and they’ll shoot another man in the back. This is not because they are not compassionate, but because being a soldier requires that compassion be suspended to get the job done.

The same thing happens to rationality when religion calls for it. Newland helpfully supplies us with a list of what religion – in his case Roman Catholicism – means to him in practical terms. Here it is, unedited: going to mass on Sundays; bringing up his children in the faith; wearing a crucifix as a symbol of faith and protection against harm; crossing his children’s foreheads every night to protect them while they sleep.

The last two of those are self-evidently irrational. They are superstitious. Does it matter? On their own, no. But these are just the aspects of Catholicism that Newland consciously acknowledges. They are the slogans behind which lurks a manifesto of irrational dogma that he and other people indoctrinated in the faith unquestioningly follow. It is a manifesto containing such gems as a ban on wearing condoms even in countries infested with HIV, or the condemnation of homosexuals as “immoral, unnatural and harmful”, in the words of the present Pope.

Newland’s point is that secularism has started to tyrannise religion. He argues that the debate over the social impact of Muslim women wearing niqab is driven by secular intolerance of religious thought. Oh, really? Strange how so few Catholics complained when the boot was on the other foot.

I cannot weep for a Church that wielded power for centuries through patronage and accumulated its vast wealth through a tax on the God-fearing poor. A Church that burned people who disagreed with it and placed under house arrest a scientist who dared to suggest that the Earth revolved around the Sun. A Church that still has the power to harbour sexual abusers whom it put into positions of responsibility.

Newland, to quote his own saviour, is looking at the speck in secular society’s eye.

The debate about wearing niqab was not prompted by secular intolerance, but by questioning secular deference to religion. If Newland thinks that deference to religion is inelastic then God help him.

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