Nuns Saved Me from Nuts
As religious fanatics start to come out of the woodwork in England, a British columnist argues that education is the best defense.
By Jemima Lewis
It has long been my nation's proud boast that we don't take religion too seriously. Instead of conviction, we have tradition; instead of preachers breathing fire and brimstone, we have gentle vicars in socks and sandals, rabbis burbling friendly platitudes on Thought For the Day, the melancholy, reedy sound of hymns sung in half-empty churches. The British are too worldly—too polite—to be evangelical. Or at least, we were.
Lately, something disturbingly like religious conviction has been stirring in our midst. All sorts of nutcases and fanatics who once would have been laughed out of town are suddenly being taken seriously. Chief among them, of course, is Tony Blair, whose seraphic smile marked him out from the start as a religious maniac. Though he claims to disapprove of politicians "beating our chests about our faith," that is precisely what Mr. Blair has done ever since coming to power. He is never happier than when parading his nuclear family in and out of church, fluttering his eyelashes at assorted "faith leaders," or leading messianic missions to liberate the globe.
With such a prime minister setting the tone, is it any wonder that zealots of every stripe are trying to muscle their way into public life? Christian Voice, for instance, is an American-style pressure group that aims to save Britain from eternal damnation. Its director, Stephen Green, believes that ever since we legalized homosexuality, divorce, and Sunday shopping, the UK has been "under God's judgment." This explains, among other things, "the ruin of our industry, fishing, and farming."
Ten years ago, no one would have given this man the time of day. Yet in recent months he has been popping up all over the place—even getting airtime on the Today program. His chief bugbear at the moment is “Jerry Springer: The Opera,” which he imagines, with the humorless literalism of the iconoclast, to endorse the very depravity that it satirizes. He has terrorized several regional theatres into canceling performances of the show and blackmailed a cancer charity into turning down a donation from its ticket sales.
Those of us who value the British tradition of religious moderation have some urgent thinking to do. How do we see off the likes of Mr. Green—not to mention those extremists of other faiths who burn books and picket plays— without resorting to intolerance and zealotry ourselves?
As a lapsed Catholic, I have a suggestion. The best cure for evangelism is a thorough religious education. Charlatans thrive on ignorance and, in matters theological, Britain is now a nation of illiterates. Easter is the most important festival in the Christian calendar—yet 52 percent of Britons, according to a new poll, have no idea what it’s about. Forty-two percent do not know that Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ, and 66 percent could not identify Rowan Williams as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Religious ignorance has not made us a less credulous nation (64 percent still believe in God); it has merely robbed us of the intellectual tools to sort the wheat from the chaff.
My own convent education cured me of religious fervor at a tender age, through a combination of boredom and revelation. I seemed to spend half my life writhing on a pew in a fit of ennui, through countless monotone hours of mass, RE, and confirmation instruction. Only once do I remember feeling some kind of religious awe—when we were led into the school chapel to pay our respects to a dead nun. She was lying in an open coffin, her face pale and severe. One by one we made the sign of the cross on her forehead; her skin felt like wax, and we tiptoed away in terror.
The nuns were kindly sorts, on the whole, and we admired their godliness. But the more they taught us about Christianity, the harder it became to share their conviction. The Bible was, as the nuns themselves admitted, impossible to take literally in an enlightened, scientific age.
Interpretation was therefore the order of the day, which immediately opened up room for doubt. And then there was the problem of Jesus, the original relativist, who loved heathens and refused to cast stones at sinners. Since he was so resolutely broadminded, shouldn't we be, too?
"Doubt is part of all religion," wrote the Yiddish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer. It is also—together with a strong instinct for privacy and civil liberty—what has kept British religious life so modest and tolerant for so long. But if we want it to stay that way, we must remember: to be an educated skeptic, you first need an education.
Jemima Lewis is a columnist for The Sunday Telegraph, and Consultant Editor of the UK current affairs magazine The Week. She lives in London.
Reprinted with permissie of the author and The Sunday Telegraph.
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