September 24, 2006


It has been a productive week. On Monday, I managed to overcome the deep loathing I was feeling for the most recent chapter of my PhD and actually submitted it. On Tuesday I paid for the washing machine (only 3 months overdue). On Wednesday I bought a new shower curtain (which I’ve discovered, does not fit, but the intention was still good), and on Thursday I opened a book and seriously considered reading it (I was armed with luminous yellow notelets and everything!). After all that excitement, the weekend was bound to seem a little quiet, though I have managed to summon just about enough energy to write this entry, which represents some kind of achievement.

All this excess activity has been triggered by the sight of the new term on the horizon. I am actually going to be let loose teaching history students next term, so I thought it might be helpful if I knew something about my subject…Whether I actually do remains to be seen. Luckily the first topic will be the Aztecs and the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, so there should be plenty of opportunity to discuss important issues like human sacrifice and the origin of chocolate. I can hardly wait…

Whilst I was busy trying to compose a PhD thesis, I notice that the Pope has tactfully managed to offend the entire Muslim world by insinuating that Islam was a violent religion. I was pleased to see that various Muslim groups quickly disproved this allegation by pouring into the street and burning effigies of the Benedict XVI, thus demonstrating, beyond all doubt, their love of peace and religious tolerance. It was all rather reminiscent of the furore earlier this year over the incendiary (actually literally) cartoon of Mohammed published in a Danish newpaper, and seems to be becoming something of a regular occurrence.

Actually, I have to confess I feel rather sorry for the Pope. Ok, so perhaps he could have selected his quotations a little more carefully, but surely Islam is not such a fragile religion that it cannot simply brush off this kind of statement (which seems, moreover, to have been taken entirely out of context)? The most appropriate reaction to the Pope would have been to ignore him (as I routinely do), or to have issued a dignified denial, refuting his claim point by point. Running about setting fire to things does not really help to convince me that Muslims abhor violence (though I’m sure the vast majority do), and there does sometimes seem to be a kind of double standard in operation, whereby some faintly insulting and misquoted comment from the Pope generates more anger than an act of actual violence committed by Islamic terrorists in Iraq.

My personal view is that a distinction should be made between words – which can be retracted – and actions, which cannot. Ultimately, the Pope was only expressing an opinion – or, to be more precise, he was expressing the opinion of a thirteenth-century Christian – which, in a democratic state, he is entitled to do. However offensive this opinion may be to some people, I fail to see how it can be as offensive as when an terrorist beheads a captive in Iraq, blows up a train in Madrid or attacks a school in Beslan, or when President Ahmadinejad of Iran threatens to wipe the state of Israel off the map – and sounds as though he means it. And in any case, why were any Muslims even listening when Pope Benedict was addressing a gathering of Catholic leaders in Germany? I certainly wasn’t, and I’m nominally a Christian…

To be honest, all this fuss only convinces me that religion in general is more trouble than it’s worth. As far as I can understand, the essential point of all religious teachings – be they in the Bible or the Koran – is that people should be nice to one another. Beyond that, does it really matter how people worship, what God they believe in or what clothes they wear? Obviously it does, hence all the, crusades, jihads and inquisitions, but quite why mystifies me. As long as religion gives people a set of sensible rules by which to live their lives, and a useful comfort blanket when things go wrong, then I have no problem with it, but as soon as people start trying to impose their beliefs upon others, using religion as a reason to exclude and condemn rather than accept and tolerate, and concocting silly rules just for the hell of it, then it deviates from its primary function as a force for good. When God gives Moses a commandment saying ‘thou shalt not kill’, then that’s all well and good. But when Brigham Young tells the Mormons that polygamy is ok because the idea of having 50 wives quite appeals to him and when the Jehovah’s witnesses say that blood transfusions are forbidden for some arbitrary reason, then things begin to get a little ridiculous. Surely religion is supposed to make people happier? And if it doesn’t then surely it’s missed the point, and just become counterproductive and controlling? Moreover, while I’m at it (there may be individuals out there I’ve not yet offended, and I would hate anyone to feel left out), why must people insist upon taking ancient religious texts literally, rather than as a general guide to appropriate behaviour? It seems to me really pedantic to spend hours agonising over the precise meaning of a particular passage of the Bible, or to persist in arguing (as some people still do) that Darwin’s theory of evolution is wrong because it contradicts the official creation story. Wouldn’t all this time arguing be better spent actually doing some good in the world? And isn’t the essence much more important than the specific wording? One would have thought so.

(Please note, my deep philosophical thoughts are now over for the week – more updates on really important issues like hamsters and shower curtains to follow shortly…)

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