In the latest edition of Palatinate, David Rhys Elward interviewed the Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright. The interview touched on a number of issues relating to Christianity, but the one I was most interested in was what the Bishop had to say about fundamentalism. Namely, that it was not a problem in this country as it is in America, the implication being that it is therefore unhelpful and irresponsible of commentators to throw the label around. Mr Elward’s comment article in the same edition, strangely enough, expressed the view that my suggestion in the previous edition that DICCU are a fundamentalist organisation had a point – although to express this point had been "dangerous and provocative" of me, given the "connotations of the term". Meanwhile his interview, which (though obviously heavily opinionated and directly relating to his comment article) was granted a huge news slot on page two, made it clear that the Bishop’s insights on the absence of fundamentalists in this country were in response to the fact that "the Christian Union had come under attack from people who consider its ethos and members to be fundamentalist." Did Mr Elward not correct the Bishop’s lack of appreciation for the fundamentalism that he believes is nothing to be ashamed of?
Let’s rewind to Know Truth week. I sat in Vane Tempest on Wednesday 6th of February listening to a man who spoke with extreme seriousness on the title "How can God be good if he sends people to Hell?" This is a speaker arranged by DICCU, the website of which organisation states that "The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour." Sounds like fundamentalism to me. The speaker did not, incidentally, address his question very adequately. But he made a very good job of holding a straight face while explaining to us that we should accept the idea that most people are going to Hell, that Hell is a real physical place with real burning, etc. Why? Because the Bible says so. I could catalogue some of the obscenely silly things that this man said (always beware the phrase "philosophers say…") but the important thing to consider is whether it really is irresponsible to use the label ‘fundamentalism’ to describe what happens every year in our student union. With packed audiences. And free potatoes. Apparently, according to Bishop Wright, critics like Richard Dawkins pick on "fundamentalists" who "most serious Christians of whatever stripe would not be a million miles near." Well, the venerable Bishop is a lot less than a million miles geographically from the Vane Tempest hall.
Religious people have an unfortunate habit of shifting their position, avoiding public confrontations, evading the issue with emotive rhetoric, hiding behind the notion of subjectivity and, in the most extreme cases, threatening violence against the apostates. And they get away with it, time and time again. Non-believers leave them be, protect their right to a platform (such as the main hall of the DSU) and characterise criticisms of them as crude attacks on straw men: ‘the fundamentalists/literalist
We live in a culture where it has become acceptable to bullshit. In our playgrounds, children are mocked for being bookish. Learning, in other words, is an object of suspicion from day one. Yet the same people who are not interested in learning are often happy to pretend to know things that they don’t. This happens all the time: in tutorials, exams, comment articles, etc. I don’t claim to be without sin in this respect, but let me cast the first stone nonetheless. It simply doesn’t help that nonsense is unashamedly given a platform by DICCU on a regular basis, let alone that our ‘official student newspaper’ should be edited in line with this rubbish. It is deemed acceptable to believe that Jesus is the truth, and even announce it to the world, and then be offended when other people make fun of your reasoning. The cartoon to the right was part of the original plan for the latest Palatinate comment section, but it was pulled at the last minute on the grounds that it was deemed crude, not funny and belligerent. That is what happens when you try and satirize bullshit, apparently.
The call to respect other people is a well-meant one, but isn’t it just a little too much like a convenient cover for not having to justify your opinions? The Bishop says that, instead of creating a divide between people, we should engage in "wise discourse … listening and sharing with people’s arguments." But, for all the emphasis on wisdom and maturity, I don’t see much listening and sharing in this edition of the Palatinate: I see religion respected (even in its crudest form) and its criticism censored. The distinguished journalist Nick Davies has just written a book exposing the decline in the media’s interest in truth: "the average Fleet Street journalist now is filling three times as much space as he or she was in 1985". Aren’t students, too, less concerned nowadays with what actually is the case, and more with what will get them a qualification? And isn’t this just the sort of corrosive attitude to truth epitomised by those who don’t see anything wrong with taking an ancient book as an authoritative guide to belief? This casual contempt for facts and reason thwarts freedom of expression, allows dangerous, extreme or just plain ridiculous beliefs to flourish, and privileges the thoughtless over the thoughtful.
So I say that if religious beliefs aren’t as silly as this witty piece of satire makes them out to be, then let religious people explain why. Don’t prevent them from seeing a cartoon they might, God forbid, even find funny…