Let’s have some freedom from religion

Just imagine the situation for a moment…… marauding bands of black robed zealots emerging from the desert to attack Palmyra. And when they did they destroyed temples, statues half a millennium old, murdering innocents, decapitating the huge statue to Athena one of the wonders of Greco-Roman culture and a monumental rebuke to the believers’ monotheism.

The date and perpetrators – not 2015 and not ISIS, but instead 385CE and Christians.

The words above are a rough paraphrase of the prologue to Catherine Nixey’s 2017 book The Darkening Age The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. It is the story of people who preached peace but in practice were violent, ruthless and intolerant.

The blog found the book alternatively enthralling and horrific. Nixey also recounts the tragic history of the philosopher Hypatia who was brutally murdered by a mob incited by the Alexandrian bishop, Cyril, who was later declared to be a saint by the Catholic Church. Her book, by the way, was published around the same time as Edward J. Watts’ Hypatia, a major account of a remarkable woman, and a decade or so after the biopic about Hypatia, Agora, starring Rachel Weisz. It is good news that such stories about Christians are being told and better news that the vast majority of Christians don’t burn the books and murder the authors they disapprove of but have been reduced to picketing offenders – even if the same restraint doesn’t apply to some Muslims.

385 CE all seems a long time ago but when the blog sees the campaign to protect freedom for religion in Australia, the US and other places it can’t help but think that for most of human history what humanity has generally needed has been freedom from religion. Indeed, it is arguable that in human history religious movements  and organisations have been the world’s greatest source of suffering, intolerance and destruction.

Presumably at some stage the Prime Minister will unveil the results of the inquiry into freedom of religion conducted by former Liberal Minister, Philip Ruddock –  an Amnesty badge-wearing individual who also simultaneously condemned asylum seekers to indefinite and cruel detention. Turnbull had promised, when he received the report in May, that it would be released in a matter of weeks but no doubt the sticking point will be the divisions among conservatives about spelling out rights in any way akin to a Bill of Rights although one shouldn’t underestimate reactionary hypocrisy.

The Ruddock religious inquiry is ostensibly about “getting the balance right.” “I want to identify how we protect religious freedom in a way that’s in keeping with our broader commitment to human rights,” Ruddock has said.

When he headed a parliamentary committee on human rights scrutiny he said he became familiar with the concept of ‘proportionality’ – balancing one right against another, for example the right to privacy against the right to life.

“Proportionality demands an element of compromise,” he said.

Well tell that to churches and mosques around the world is the obvious answer to that. Christians in the western world are generally not actively torturing or killing people any more, with the obvious exceptions of the civil wars in the post-Yugoslavian states, anti-abortionists murdering abortion clinic staff and the murder of homosexuals in Africa. But they are keen on stopping people from doing things – like having abortions, marrying a same sex partner or getting through government schools without a chaplain stuffing ideas down their throat, so to speak, even if some might argue that this is preferable to analogous activities by clergy over the years. In the US – emboldened by the Trump election – fundamentalists are pushing to have Christian symbols and policies accepted throughout State administrations, buildings and schools.

Equally some Muslims are murdering people, victimising women and generally carrying on in medieval ways even if in medieval times Muslim countries were considerably more intellectually advanced than European countries. Indeed, they saved much of the classical literature which Tony Abbott and John Howard say is essential to the so-called Judeo-Christian heritage of western civilisation.

The days of imagining that Buddhists are not violent is demonstrated to be nonsense daily in Myanmar. And Hindus are recovering a mythical warrior heritage by murdering people who eat beef and speaking of beef – the long-held belief that countries with McDonald’s don’t make war on each other is also a nonsense. Incidentally, in terms of myth demolitions, recent research into Aztec history has suggested that the figures quoted by Spanish conquistadores for Aztec human sacrifices were vastly exaggerated and insignificant compared with the loss of life as the conquered peoples were infected with European diseases, enslaved and forced to toil in appalling conditions.

In fact, given the history of religions it’s a bit rich to see them talking about religious freedoms at all. Nevertheless the usual suspects will continue to make the case. But there is hope. Who would have thought the Irish would vote to not only legalise same sex marriage but also abortion. Indeed, in the western world, the discrediting of religious organisations as a result of rampant child abuse is probably the root cause of a fundamental change among a majority of the population towards religion.

But in good old Australia the conservatives keep trying. Whether the Ruddock report will help them or not is irrelevant. They will keep pushing back – and society needs to be alert to the need to ensure we are free from religion and the zealots who practise it and try to impose their views on the rest of us.