Saturday, 22 December 2012

I wish I'd been smoking what Richard Dawkins has been smoking !

Every so often, someone makes a stupid comment that completely destroys years of hard work building a reputation. An example of this was Ex Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, who responded to a question about the winter of discontent with the comment "Crisis, what crisis?". With that one comment, his whole career was redifined. No discussion of Callaghan ever happens without some reference to the comment.

I suspect Professor Richard Dawkins has just made a similarly damaging statement. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Dawkins claimed that being raised as a Roman Catholic was worse than being abused as a child. There are many levels on which Dawkins has got it wrong ( As someone who was born and raised in the Catholic faith, who has many friends who were also raised as Catholics, some of whom still are and some who aren't, it is clear to me that such talk is offensive nonsense. Sadly the paedophile priest scandal colours our perception of the church, and this has been handled appallingly. If Dawkins had attacked the church for his handling of the scandal, I would have agreed with him. This wasn't his point. His point was that raising children within the faith was worse than child abuse. He specifically seperated the two issues. I have friends of many religions and no religion at all. If you were to analyse any of the beliefs and traditions, they all have good points and bad points. Some faiths and creeds do have some traditions that  I find repulsive, such as female circumcision. Some faiths have practices I find incompehensible and dangerous, such as cults who commit suicide in anticipation of the end of the world. All of these things should be highlighted and criticised. Efforts should be made to argue the case for ending such things, however the arguments must be made with honesty, integrity and logic.To persuade someone that a deeply held belief or tradition is wrong can only be done respectfully and with calm logic. If you want to persuade a family that they shouldn't circumcise their daughter, which approach do you think would be more likely to succeed, one where you engage in a calm debate and explain that the practice should be avoid because it is not a religious requirement, but a tradition and one which will immeasurably damage a woman. If instead of taking a calm, reasoned approach you say "you belong to a barbaric religion and you are a savage", all you will do is alienate and damage your own argument.

Mr Dawkins uses as an example, the fact that a woman was told that a childhood friend who died aged seven, would go to hell because she was a Protestant. Dawkins said the woman found this more traumatic than sexual abuse received at the hands of a Priest. A casual reader, unfamiliar with the Roman Catholic religion may well conclude that children at Catholic Schools or attending mass would be told the same thing.  Whilst individuals involved in the Church may say stupid things such as this, it is not in any way a reflection of the view Roman Catholics have of other faiths.  I would have assumed that Dawkins would have done his homework. Following the Vatican II conference in the early 1960's, the teaching of the Church is that anyone can go to heaven, regardless of which faith they belong to. None of us know who will go and why. The position of the Church is that if you follow the teachings and do good things, then that will make your case, but we shouldn't judge those who follow different paths. That is between them and God. If anyone ever uses the argument that "you should become a Roman Catholic because the only alternative is Hell when you die" they are being dishonest and ignorant.

I generally welcome the interventions of commentators such as Richard Dawkins. Anyone who has genuine criticisms of any religion or creed, should be listened to and if there is weight in their arguments, then it is up to the faith to adapt. We are seeing such a process with the Gay marriage debate. Where Dawkins has gone wrong on this case is a) he's belittled the damage caused by sexual abuse and b) he's not been honest about how the teachings of a faith deals with other religions. I worry that his comments may upset and inflame tensions between Protestants and Catholics in places such as Norther Ireland. In Mill Hill and Barnet generally, there are excellent relationships between all of the faiths. One of my friends, Romal Miah, who runs the Day of the Raj restaurant in Mill Hill is a Muslim who attended a Roman Catholic secondary school. We have discussed this and he tells me it was a positive experience. His religious beliefs were respected and he gained from an insight into another faith.

I have a friend who is a Church of England vicar. She has an unusual story because she was raised in a militant communist home and went to secular schools. She initially started "hanging around" churches as she enjoyed the peace and tranquility. She decided to become a vicar as she saw this as a way where she could dedicate her life to helping people in a practical and gentle way. She has a calm and dignified manner and is a classic example of why the Roman Catholic faith should ordain women. A few years ago we discussed the views of Dawkins and she explained that what attracted her to the ministry was the fact that a vicar helps people who need it and brings communities together. She took the view that Dawkins had some good arguments but was divisive in how he presented his arguments, which was not in her opinion good for anyone.

I was reminded of this conversation by Dawkins comments today.  I really don't think he's done anyone a service by putting his arguments in such a manner, least of all himself and his credibility. If I was Mr Dawkins, I'd announce that I'd had a heavy session on the skunk weed before I made the statement and what I really meant was ....

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