Friday, September 19, 2008

Atheists Go Home!

One of the accusations that is regularly trotted out when addressing critics of the Church of Scientology is that of "religious intolerance". This is to suggest that by voicing one's concerns about the Church's scant avoidance of corporate responsibility in, say, the safe removal of blue asbestos from it's fleet, or its willingness to allow its staff to practice medicine without a license, a person is no better than an ignorant bigot and would probably go around leaving burning CroSses on Beck's front lawn. Apologists and Scientologists alike are quick to draw comparisons between critics of the Church and Nazis, which is rather insulting to Jews, and also confuses religious and racist persecution. It was the Jewish race (along with gypsies, the mentally ill, homosexuals) that Nazi Germany had a problem with - no appostates were saved. Unless I have misunderstood, and the Nazi card is played in reference to their persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses, then the murder of six million Jews ought not be compared to people speaking out against another person's belief system or, as is more usual, their behaviour.
Religious Tolerance, though, is a peculiar beast. It has to be universal for it to work at all. We can't pick whose religion we are tolerant of. You could, for instance, say that you were tolerant of all Abrahamic religions, but you're still making a distinction. I think it's true to say that most people who pay lip-service to religious tolerance have to qualify it to a greater or lesser extent; they have to draw a line in the sand. That line may concern itself with behaviour, fundementals of belief, or even be personal to individuals within a particular belief system, but it is drawn nonetheless.
Except that in today's political climate, you can't say any of that out loud. We're all supposed to have universal religious tolerance. People of differing religions are expected to have tolerance of other religions. This latter issue is particularly amusing because in most cases, it's fundementally disallowed. Nazarene dissident Jesus Christ said "No one comes to the father, but through me," and pretty much all religions have some kind of exclusivity claim built in somewhere; so what is the true nature of that religious tolerance? It is either an admission that one's own religion is just as flawed, unlikely and dubious as everyone else's or it is disingenuous "I tolerate your beliefs, however wrong they may be."
Now, how far this is right or wrong doesn't immediately concern me. I'm an atheist, so anyone of any religious conviction is barking up the wrong tree as far as I'm concerned. What does interest me, however, is the effect that this tolerance is having on the religious landscape as a whole.
The importance of tolerance comes down to the current climate of fear we're enjoying following the terrorist attacked that have been made by Islamic fundementalists. Political figures, realising the possibility of widespread civil unrest and intolerance in our multi-cultural and multi-faith world, made it hand-wringingly clear that we all had to get along, Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Christians, Scientologists and Moonies. So we end up with senior policemen making glowing speeches about Scientologists at the opening of a London Celebrity Centre, and we decide to lift the ban on the Reverend Moon entering the United Kingdom.
Put plainly, fringe religions are, more and more, enjoying the same kind of respect and lack of scrutiny enjoyed by more mainstream religions, and at the expense of mainstream religion. Christianity in the UK has been multi-denominational for years now, but I'm noticing a greater number of small churches springing up, often with more letters in their overbearing titles than they have congregation. Along with that, Christians themselves seem to be getting kookier, or at least the visible ones are. Fundementalism is creeping into the fragmented church under a blanket of political correctness. Fringe cults are beginning to enjoy tax funding for the running of faith schools. It is becoming increasingly possible to pick a religion that matches one's own prejudices, faiths that use the bible to excuse a belief in racism, slavery and sexual inequality.
Here's a reality check. The guys who stand on street corners and tell passers by that they're going to hell are not good adverts for their religion. The smiley, happy clappy Christians performing entertaining bits of shtick in front of a Sesco are not good adverts for their religion. Both parties are projecting an image of what their particular religion does to its converts. This, you're probably thinking, is stating the obvious. But the trouble is, passersby aren't going to know where these people have come from as they quicken their step to take themselves out of earshot. They'll hear the word "God", or they'll recognise the tome of onionskin in the preacher's hand, and just lump the evangelical in with all the other Christians. And in an environment where we are continually told all religions are created equal, where does this ripe and fertile ground for fringe religions leave mainstream religions. Which faiths are rubbing off on which? Religious tolerance does not, in practicality, provide a bedrock for Christianity or Islam; by embracing the fringe and the fundementalist, religious tolerance serves only to undermine it. It is said of Incident II that it is no stranger than many of the events spoken of in the bible. This is quite true, but illuminates Christianity more than it does Scientology.