I met a scholar in religious studies and philosophy over the weekend. I was rather relieved when he told me he was an atheist. There seems to be something wrong about having a religious person teaching others about religion, given that the bottom line in religion seems to be converting other people to yours. Some strategic objectivity would be good in a teacher of religious studies. I am completely respectful of those that hold religious beliefs and live by them, and I’m often in awe of the fact that they have these beliefs to guide them and draw comfort from; and I think that the Christian lifestyle, and Christian teachings offer structure to children, and I say that having been exposed to these a child myself. I am equally of the opinion that other religious teachings are likely to offer similar structure and be equally valid. But religion has never been for me.
My atheism was strengthened when my first wife died from a brain tumour aged 40 after an 8 year illness, during which she lost her sight and her memory. She was a gifted teacher, an adorable person with strongly held views about many things, particularly animal welfare, and she was loved and admired by many. She would often take the opportunity to ask those with religious beliefs why she should fall ill and face death at such an early age. She was never given a satisfactory answer. She resisted visits from religious personnel close to her death, never claimed to have had spiritual visitations close to death and did not have a religious funeral at her own bequest. Despite the fact that I think she’d want to come back and say hello to me once in a while these days, I’ve never heard a dickie bird from the afterlife. I remain, therefore, resolutely ambivalent to religion of any kind.
And of course, it’s impossible for me to avoid the apparent evidence that suggests that most of the conflict in the world is based on religion; people effectively fighting over who’s imaginary friend is best. It’s an absolute nonsense, and makes a mockery of the idea that religion teaches, amongst other things, love, respect, tolerance, understanding, forgiveness and acceptance of others. Some people with strongly held religious views can often be the antithesis of many of these things.
Two recent examples have caught my attention; the religious elements of both are not explicit, but they linger like a flickering apparition in the background. Firstly, Jeremy Hunt piped up to say that it is his view that abortion should not be permissible after 12 weeks, although he ‘thinks’ that the view isn’t held because of his religious views (which he’s not expressed in relation to this story). Secondly, the Marie Stopes organisation has opened a clinic in Northern Ireland, where abortion is legal but only up to 9 weeks and only in certain stringent conditions relating to the long term health of the mother.
Hunt’s statement about abortion is dangerous because in stating this apparently personal opinion he brings the debate into a political arena – and there are few things more dangerous than confusion over political views and those views in some way informed by a religious belief. Public servants should not be allowing their personal opinions to be broadcast in this way. The current guidelines allow abortions up to 24 weeks, after which the probability of viable births becomes greater than not according to most scientific evidence. Whilst most abortions occur before the 12 week mark, this is not a reason to reduce the legal limit. Whether or not this view is guided by Hunt’s religious beliefs, it would leave those women who, for whatever reason, sought abortion after that point (whether they themselves were religious or not) in a seriously compromised position. This is the reason to maintain the current limit.
In Northern Ireland, the law appears to be influenced by one particular opinion that abortion in any circumstance is wrong. Northern Ireland is not covered by the Abortion Act and, because of the polarised opinions, there seems to be little political appetite to address it. The criteria are so stringent that in the last year only 35 abortions were performed in the country, although in excess of 1000 Northern Irish women travelled to England and Wales to have abortions legally performed. The Marie Stopes clinic intends to offer abortions within the law, but also to raise awareness of the availability of the service within the province for those who want or need it – and there is clearly a demand. The law, however, seems to me to be the equivalent of putting one’s hands over ones ears and screaming ‘la la la la’. It fails to acknowledge that some women (again, whether they themselves were religious or not) will want to abort some pregnancies, usually in distressing circumstances.
In this case, the law ought to reflect the needs of people given the evidence presented, so these people can feel safe, protected and understood – some of the virtues of a religious teaching. The evidence in the Northern Irish case suggests a need and a scientific justification beyond 9 weeks. However, this law, shaped to some extent by the strength of religious belief, makes women feel embarrassed, dirty, wrong and burdensome at a point in their life where they are not likely to be at their most joyous.
There are examples of the will of religion creeping into the lives of the non-religious everywhere, and we are fortunate to live in a country where the church and the state are (largely) kept apart – and long may it remain. I, like many others, am not religious at all, and I have no desire to be governed by rules and regulations imposed on those who follow a religion. If I wanted that, I’d join the religion. Likewise, my daughter won’t go to a school with a religious element, though she is of course free to choose whatever religion she wants when she’s old enough to understand the implications. And whilst I am perfectly content that people are religious, I don’t want to be imposed upon by it. As soon as that starts, I’ll impose my music taste on everyone else, and that really will be horrible.