What is it about rationalists that some of them become so irrational when it comes to religion? Polly Toynbee, one of the best, most articulate and intelligent columnists in the British media, is also president of the British Humanist Association and honorary associate of the National Secular Society. She writes about British politics and people with compassion and, often, great wisdom. But when it comes to religion in general and Christianity in particular, all rationality goes out of the window and everything turns to irritable fluff.
In today’s Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/dec/23/atheism-disestablishentment-rowan-williams-humanism) she writes of the Archbishop of Canterbury ‘with his usual confused mumbling into his beard’. Oh, come on, Polly – grow up.
She then goes on as follows: ‘The 26 bishops in the Lords interfere regularly: they are a threat on abortion, and their campaign sank the Joffe bill, giving the terminally ill the right to die in dignity. Of course they should not be there, when only 16% of people will grace the pews on Christmas Day, and Christian Research forecasts church attendance falling by 90%. But a dying faith clings hard to its inexplicable influence on public life.’
It is hard to know where to start to respond to such nonsense; but, here goes.
The bishops in the House of Lords ‘regularly interfere’, do they? And what do all the other members of the Upper House do? Presumably, they make ‘intelligent contributions’ or ‘help shape the political and moral agenda’. Is it only bishops who, by fulfilling their responsibilities (whether or not one approves of them having them in the first place – which is a different argument), are technically ‘interfering’? Or is it simply that if you happen to disagree with Polly Toynbee, you are clearly either ‘interfering’ or somehow illegitimate?
What underlies this is the arrogant assumption that her assumptions about the world are self-evidently true while the assumptions of others (Christians, for example) are to be derided or disregarded. The bishops are a ‘threat’ on abortion. In what sense? Because they don’t necessarily agree with her own views – which are, of course, self-evidently true? What sort of a society does this sort of irrational and hysterical rationalism want: one in which only certain views are to be respected and which is led and shaped by people who assume (without argument) that their world view is self-evidently right? Give me anytime the confident humility of the Church Toynbee so derides – which, at least, argues its case and allows for the possibility that it might not have the final word on every subject under the sun. (But don’t get me started on the Pope’s statement on gender boundaries…)
Just to push the point firmly home, Toynbee also uses spurious statistics on church membership that were disowned even by the organisation that produced them. The statistical base for the flat-line projections offered by Christian Research at the end of 2007 were ridiculed by everyone except those who have an ideological need to claim them. Had they been Government statistics on poverty (for example), Polly Toynbee would have dismissed them as fundamentally flawed, deeply misleading and unworthy of a creditable organisation.
The two organisations to which Polly belongs have a membership of 3000 (National Secular Society) and 5000 (British Humanist Association) – and it is probable that there is some duplication in those figures as some will be members of both. Both organisations are regularly consulted by Government and media as if they had credibility. I think they do – on the grounds that minority perspectives need to be taken into account and that they oftes have interesting observations to make. But, if Polly wants to argue that numbers justify influence, shouldn’t we just ignore two groups of people that would fit into two of our larger cathedrals in one go? Do 1.7 million Anglican worshippers (every month since 2000) – to say nothing of other denominations – have less right to ‘influence’ than a few thousand people who are angry about ‘religion’?
‘The unctuous claim there is a special religious ethos that can be poured like a sauce over schools and public services to improve them morally’ is a carefully phrased bit of dismissive nonsense. If Polly Toynbee really thinks that is how these things work, then she has a bigger problem than we thought. I think she has a serious point about protection of religious sensibilities from criticism in the public sphere – but she doesn’t help develop an argument by using such silly language to express her irritation that she can’t have it her way.
I won’t go on. The rest of the article should be read, if only to demonstrate how irrational a rationalist can be. Is it not possible for there to be a sensible conversation about this sort of thing? Yes, there are religious people who take irrationalism to new heights. Yes, there are religious people who are, frankly, dangerous. Yes, there are religious people whose faith is a pile of wishful thinking and fantasy. But there are also religious people who are deeply rational, socially compassionate, not bigotted and open to intelligent discussion and debate. We could start with the ‘bearded one’ Polly Toynbee sneers at at the beginning of her article.