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Atheists and believers have got religion wrong

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There's a modern brand of militant atheist that can appear horribly smug and superior.

Whenever there's an argument between those who claim the religious are ethically superior, and the Richard Dawkins-following fans of atheism, I want someone to bang the table and shout "Oy - you're all wrong."

For example, a column in this paper claimed, "Judaeo-Christian religion devotes itself principally to instructing its adherents in how to behave well in their dealings with others." Someone ought to try this out, and apply to be a Rabbi or the Pope by saying, "I don't really care for God, but I always give up my seat to old women on the bus. When can I start?"

Also, Judaeo-Christian religion pays some regard to the Bible, which is full of instructions to behave well, such as the one in the book of Deuteronomy, "In the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave anything alive that breathes. Otherwise you will sin against the Lord your God."

Anything that breathes? Even Hitler left it at humans. But that's not enough for the Bible, that screams, "The trouble with genocide is it's too soft. It takes no account of lizards."

Clearly most modern Christians don't go along with this, and they say the Bible isn't meant to be taken that literally. Which seems a bit of a cop-out, as it is the Bible. It's like a political party issuing this statement in a manifesto, and then when they're questioned about it saying, "Oh I wouldn't take any notice of that. It's more of a long-term goal than a commitment."

The idea that religious people are more moral or better at behaving well than atheists is hard to show. From the Spanish Inquisition to Cliff Richard they've got to make a lot of excuses. But equally, there's no clear case in blaming everything on religion. For example, the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland was evidently about more than that. When Loyalists chucked stones into a Catholic estate they weren't thinking, "Transubstantiation my arse."

Because it's not ideas that drive actions such as these, it's circumstances. There have been few religious ideas that, on the face of it, are more batty than the beliefs of the Nation of Islam. If they're right, then apparently white people were all bred by an evil doctor on an island over a period of thousands of years, and there's a flying saucer involved as well. But when seen in context, from the point of view of black people angry at segregated, lynch-happy America, the devils theory could make sense.

Similarly, modern Islam is shaped by events in Palestine and Iraq, which has led millions of Muslims to conclude that Western governments have got it in for them. If you start from the point that circumstances drive ideas, then as a non-Muslim you can engage with Muslims in discussing how to deal with George Bush's Project for the American Century.

If you start from the point of view that all religion is nutty, you've got nothing more to say to a Muslim than, "How can a mountain move, you idiot?"

There's a modern brand of militant atheist that can appear horribly smug and superior. It's an attitude that can be summed up as, "Aren't religious people stupid? All over Africa they're stupid, and the Middle-East. And the Romans, believing in all those two-headed animals, the morons. Aristotle with his unmoved moving God, as if. Descartes, Isaac Newton, Bob Marley, they all fell for it. In fact everyone who ever lived up to about 1800, and most people since then have been stupid stupid stupid."

Or worse, there's these patronising stuck-up columns that go, "Aren't these Afghan peasants awful? I mean, I took the trouble to read Voltaire and Hume at university so why can't they? Their sexual politics is frankly shocking, and there's no excuse these days because with the internet they could order Armistead Maupin novels on Amazon and they'd be out to the caves of Tora Bora within a fortnight. I think the time has come for decent mountain tribes to say to these sexist types if they don't change their ways they won't be invited to any dinner parties or any openings of art galleries."

There's always a rational basis to the irrationality of religion, and however bizarre, religious ideas usually reflect the reality of people's lives.

So the Christianity of a Mexican landless peasant takes a different form from the Christianity of Tony Blair. In a just and fair world, these ideas would be no more harmful than the irrational following people have for football teams. Maybe they'd even be more relaxed about people taking the piss, with other religions allowed into the away end of the temple, where they could chant, "Who ate all the wafers?"; "You're damned - and you know you are"; and "Can you hear the Trappists sing - I can't hear a thing."



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