I ask a man I’ve just met what he does for a living. “I build boats,” he says, “like Jesus – I mean Noah –” he darts me a concerned look and holds out his hand in a halt sign, “I mean, not that I’m religious.”
The quasi squeamishness in his tone and body language not only implies that being religious is in some way objectionable, politically incorrect, or embarrassing, but also his absolute certainty that I share his view. As though anybody in his or her right mind would.
I’m in a pub with a group of writer friends. Somehow, the conversation turns to religion, and a joke is shared about people who believe in God. “I believe in God,” I say.
Complete silence as they all turn to me with an expression of shock mixed with disbelief. One of them says, “How can a woman as intelligent as you believe in God?”
I remark that if I were to ask him how a man as intelligent as he could possibly be an atheist, I’d be quickly condemned for intolerance – and rightly so. So what gave him that right over me?
Another man says, “But you might as well believe in Santa Claus. I mean, you can’t prove God exists.”
“No,” I said, “but can you prove He doesn’t?”
Why would my inability to provide irrefutable proof be considered inferior to his? I wasn’t proselytising but merely demanding equal rights for expressing an opinion without being derided or ridiculed. Or at least simple good manners.
Every US dollar bill has the words In God we trust printed on the back. When President Barack Obama took the oath of office, he concluded it with the words, “So help me God.” He is one of many US presidents to have done that and nobody finds anything strange or untoward in that. I shudder at what would happen if David Cameron ever referred to God. Twitter would explode with a hashtag along the lines of PMsaysGod, and he would be interrogated by the journalist on duty of Radio 4’s Today programme the very next morning. “Prime Minister, in your speech at the Commons, yesterday, you actually said ‘God’. Now how do you reconcile your choice of word with Britain as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, inclusive society?”
That’s right, inclusive is the buzz word in present-day Britain. So why not include everybody – believers and non-believers alike?
Several councils have stopped using the word Christmas in favour of the allegedly more inclusive Winter Festival. A vague term that could refer to a number of other seasonal celebrations, including Chanukkah, and which therefore lacks precision.
Many in the UK may remember the case, a few years ago, of the nurse who almost lost her job for offering to pray for a patient. What kind of person would feel offended by this sort of offer, which is tantamount to an expression of good wishes? It seems that the patient declined the offer, and the nurse respected their decision. Why report this nurse? Interestingly, this nurse was apparently in breach of her code of conduct on “equality and diversity”. That does strike me as a contradiction.
I must admit that, these days, when a certain spring Christian festival approaches, I hesitate before wishing strangers a happy Easter, in case they take offence. Sometimes, I even ask, “Is it all right to say ‘Happy Easter’?” And yet I have Jewish friends to whom I regularly wish a happy Chanukkah – and who wish me a happy Chanukkah in return. Far from offending me, I feel glad and honoured by the fact that they somehow include me in their celebrations. After all, it is a good wish that relates to celebration that falls on a specific date on the calendar. Believing or not believing does not alter that date or event. Whether you are a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, belong to another creed, or are an atheist, 25 December is Christmas Day.
I appreciate the fact that this trend is a reaction to the uncountable harm religion – Christianity, in this case – has done over the centuries. Every school child knows about the Inquisition and the persecutions. Without the need to go that far back in history, I myself witnessed intolerance, ignorance and cruelty inflicted on people in the name of religion while an undergraduate at what was considered the third most prestigious university in England – both on the part of Catholics and Anglicans.
What I find sad and, frankly, unacceptable, is that many people should act as though being in turn intolerant towards religious beliefs helps somehow redress the balance, but bigotry is bigotry – whether religious or atheist.
Much is made, nowadays, of freedom and, in particular, freedom of speech. I don’t see how exercising the freedom to offend or insult can do honour to a human being. Any fool can express his or her opinion, seeing the Law allows it. But perhaps it takes an intellectually and morally superior person being to weigh the situation and, if need be, temper his or her free speech with respect towards a fellow human being.