There’s an old Jewish joke about atheism that I’ve always liked. It centres around a young man in a shtetl in Poland who wants to be an atheist, but doesn’t know how. He doesn’t know any atheists, and there are none in the surrounding area, but he has heard of Mendel the Atheist, who lives far away in Vilna. So our hero makes the long trek to go and study with the famous Mendel.
On arriving, he presents himself and says, “I want to be an atheist.” “All right,” says Mendel, “let’s talk Lurianic Kabbalah.” “I’ve never studied Kabbalah,” says the young man. “Well then,” says Mendel, “we’ll work on a criticism of the Talmud.” “I’ve never really studied the Talmud,” says the young man.
“Oh come on,” says Mendel, “at least you know your basic Torah and Rashi.” “I’m not interested in any of that stuff,” says the young man. “I told you, I want to be an atheist.” “Young man,” says Mendel, “what you are is an ignoramus. To be an atheist you have to know religion very well.”
This sums up some of the problems I have with Dawkinsite evangelical atheists, and was brought to mind on coming across Johann Hari (aged 13¾) interviewing Mr Tony Blair. Although it isn’t quite fair to say that Johann knows nothing about religion. As a committed homosexualist, he knows one thing, which is that organised religion has historically been none too hot on gay rights. Therefore Johann concludes, with the zeal of a commissar, that it’s necessary to destroy religion in order to advance the gay cause.
Johann’s position is a bit weird – religions may oppress gays in passing, but that’s not the point of religion – but what you can say in favour of it is that what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in logical consistency. And he does have the advantage of being an equal-opportunity antireligious polemicist – he doesn’t like the Catholics much, but you’re equally likely to find him bashing the Muslims or Buddhists. The other thing his position has going for it is that he doesn’t expect organised religion to validate his lifestyle.
This sort of moral courage, of course, is too much for Mr Tony, who loves to be all things to all men. Although he’s only been a Catholic for five minutes, he now reckons that the Pope should get with the times and modernise, and his new club should change itself to fit in with progressive metrosexual mores. Not only that, he thinks all religions need to modernise:
“Organised religions face the same dilemma as political parties when faced with changed circumstances,” he said.
“You can either A: Hold on to your core vote, basically, you know, say ‘Look let’s not break out because if we break out we might lose what we’ve got, and at least we’ve got what we’ve got so let’s keep it’. Or B: You say ‘let’s accept that the world is changing, and let us work out how we can lead that change and actually reach out’.”
The trouble is that, as I’ve been pointing out, the Catholic Church is not the Labour Party – it is supposed to deal in moral certainties. It’s not even the C of E, which actually will have these debates in General Synod and decide that what was a sin yesterday is quite permissible today. But let’s say that Pope Benedict went on Channel 4 News and declared that fornication was no longer a sin (as long as you use a condom, of course.) It might win him some friends, given the overwhelming popularity of fornication, but he would be a pretty poor excuse for a Pope. His job description involves being tough on sin and tough on the causes of sin.
“There is a huge generational difference here,” he said. “There’s probably that same fear amongst religious leaders that if you concede ground on [homosexuality], because attitudes and thinking evolve over time, where does that end? You’d start having to rethink many, many things.” He added: “If you went and asked the [ordinary Catholic] congregation, I think you’d find that their faith is not to be found in those types of entrenched attitudes.”
You know, I have my doubts about that. Perhaps it’s true of middle-class Catholic congregations in North London. Probably it’s less true in Spain or Poland or Brazil – or even in Ireland. But, and here’s my point, where does Mr Tony get off deciding that he’s going to rewrite Catholic doctrine? I don’t agree with the Pope on homosexuality any more than he does, but it seems an odd position to take for somebody who’s going around speaking about his faith all the time. If he regards Catholic moral teaching as so much Clause 4-style ideological baggage that can be comfortably jettisoned to win approving headlines, doesn’t that call into question the seriousness of his conversion?
Or, to put it another way, why did Benny let him join in the first place? If he wants to be a reforming moderniser – well, that sounds a bit Protestant to me.