Bagrec linked yesterday to this Comment is Free post, where Polly Toynbee writes about religion, free speech, and Jerry Springer the Opera, whose tour ends next week at the Brighton Dome:
This will be the last chance to see it, as its co-author Stewart Lee says glumly that he doubts it will ever be performed again. It shows how insidiously the tentacles of religious zeal invade every sphere of national life, despite the very small number of religious practitioners in this most secular of nations.
This year the dark side of religion conspired to stop a dignity in dying bill that would have allowed the terminally ill to choose how their lives should end. Now they plot yet more restrictions on abortion. Meanwhile, free speech is increasingly squeezed by the demands of Muslims for more religious protection, silencing most of the usual voices who should defend the right to cause offence. The Jerry Springer story is small potatoes in comparison – but it’s the harbinger of a cowardly culture shift that lets religious intimidation win.
It reminded me of a recent interview with Christopher Hitchens, in which he told the (Christian) magazine World that religion was “a deadly threat to the survival of the species and to the continued evolution of the brain”, and described himself as an “anti-theist” rather than an atheist, because “an atheist can still say he wishes it was true. It would be nice if it was true. I can’t see why it would be nice if it was true. I simply can’t see that. To have pre-cradle to post-grave round-the-clock supervision and surveillance by someone with a very devious form of morality… And then with the other shoe, the other hand, says if you don’t believe it, then we have a real program of torture that will go on forever. It’s disgusting. It was completely invented by very underdeveloped human beings. These are peasants; the sort of people we are up against now, with wild looks in their eyes and living in caves.”
It’s a bit of a theme of his – in the book Letters To A Young Contrarian he gives the example of the Christian texts relating to guilt and punishment:
There are only two texts, both of them extreme and mutually contradictory. The Old Testament injunction is the one to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…The second is from the Gospels and says that only those without sin should cast the first stone. The first is the moral basis for capital punishment and other barbarities; the second is so relativist and “non judgmental” that it would not allow the prosecution of Charles Manson. Our few notions of justice have had to evolve despite these absurd notions of ultravindictiveness and ultracompassion.
The eye for an eye stuff comes from Exodus, where it’s preceded by a series of laws governing the treatment of servants – “If thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing”. The one exception is in the event of the servant saying, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free”, in which case his master shall “bring him to the door, or unto the doorpost; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for ever”. Hitchens writes that “the indispensable condition of any kind of intellectual liberty” is refusing to believe that “turgid and contradictory and sometimes evil and mad texts, obviously written by fairly unexceptional humans, are in fact the word of god”.
Woolly, weaselly agnostic liberal that I am, I probably wouldn’t go as far as this – if you want to believe that stuff like this actually is the word of god, then be my guest – as Hitchens tells World, “My agreement with you, with them, is that they leave you alone”, eg to look at whatever cartoons or see whatever operas you like. “But”, he adds, “they won’t, they can’t leave you alone”. A familiar debate in the comments here is whether fundamentalist group x is better or worse than group y. I find that past a certain point they’re all of a muchness. You won’t be surprised, for example, to learn that the Wikipedia page for Christian Voice, who led the protests against Jerry Springer, says that after Hurricane Katrina they released a statement saying it was the result of god’s wrath and had brought “purity” to New Orleans. Its founder Stephen Green also believes that civil partnerships in the UK will bring similar “judgment on our land from the same Almighty God who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah”.
Noting that Polly Toynbee is chair of Brighton Dome and Festival, the charity that runs the venue where the Springer show will close, one of the Guardian commenters says her article is “one of the best examples of a blatant-advertisement-masquerading-as-a-why-oh-why-commentary I have ever seen”. Yes, it’s disgraceful. Tickets are available at lastminute.com, down from £32.50 to only £10.00.