Gary Day

April 1, 2005

The rise of fundamentalist religious beliefs is a worrying trend, especially when such groups have the ear of Government

The other week, a Muslim student came up to me after a seminar and said: "You know that we believe that people should have their hand cut off if they steal?" I said I had heard something of the sort.

We had been discussing Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good (1988). The play argues that the best way to reform convicts is not to flog them but to make them suffer the far greater punishment of participating in amateur dramatics.

I loudly suggested that I might adopt amputation as a punishment for those who forgot to bring their books, but no one woke up.

The student went on. Apostates, gays and adulterers should all be dispatched. It wasn't my place to say anything. My job as an employee of a listening university is to respect diversity.

But maybe that was the previous week's mission statement. So I took a chance and asked if she didn't think these measures a trifle harsh, although after contemplating the state of our front garden this morning I agreed that drunks should be thrashed without mercy. She intimated that it was not for us to question the word of God.

I am not a great reader of the Koran but I do puzzle over bits of the Bible. It would be nice if the Almighty could occasionally explain himself.

What on earth did he mean by saying "I create evil"? (It's Isaiah xiv, 7, if you're interested.) There's no doubting that, in the Old Testament at least, he had a decidedly nasty streak. As well as booting the Amorites, the Hittites and the Canaanites off their land, he also ordered Saul to "go and smite" the Amalekites and "utterly destroy all that they have and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass".

You wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of him, would you? But according to Christian Voice, we have. This is the organisation that persuaded a cancer charity to refuse money raised by a performance of Jerry Springer the Opera because it was "tainted".

When you hear such things you can almost agree with them that we have lost our way. Much needs to be done.

We can make a start by banning abortion, homosexuality and sex education, and by restoring corporal punishment and the death penalty, not just for murder but also, apparently, for adultery. If I have one tiny criticism of Christian Voice it is that they don't seem to have heard of the New Testament. You have to look hard for the word "love" on their website.

The rise of religious fundamentalism is a worrying trend. We have faith schools, we have plays banned and we have evangelical Christians who blame Satan when the exhaust falls off their car. And these are the people who increasingly have the ear of the Government.

It would be an exaggeration to say that there could be some kind of theocracy in Britain in the next 20 years, but it would be foolish to deny that the conditions for one are starting to emerge. Most of us would like to think that there is a God who loves each and every one of us, but there is no evidence for such a being. In fact, quite the opposite.

At this point, someone usually wheels out the argument about free will. But we didn't choose to have free will, it was thrust upon us. In any case, how can we decide between good and evil when half the time we can't even make up our minds what to wear?

Some religions are lucky because their God tells them how to dress, which is certainly more useful than being told to stone an ox if it gores someone to death.

Ah well, I suppose it's all a question of priorities. And, anyway, who am I to plumb the mind of God? The religious Right have a stunted conception of the sacred. They make their holy books a barrier to knowledge and turn ignorance into a virtue.

A Muslim student once screamed at a colleague who tried to introduce the Big Bang theory that he was "dissing his religion".

We need to fight this attitude by insisting that truth needs evidence, that arguments should be logical, that morality is not simply a matter of applying rules, and that we, like the cosmos, are pretty complex things. Of course, that won't happen because we're all too busy servicing the economy.

Still, we can always hope that human imperfection will bring us to our senses.

Feeling rather down about the views on punishment espoused by my student, another Muslim girl said: "Oh, you don't want to listen to this lot with the hijab. They're all slappers." I'm sure that's not true, but it restored my sense of perspective.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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