Wednesday 28 April 2010

Religion in the public sphere

I have just heard a heart-warming story on the radio (Deutsche Welle). It concerned a recent demonstration in Beirut, against the religion-based system of government in that country. For all sorts of position, from the President downwards, you have to be of the right religion. The demonstrators, mostly younger people, wore tee-shirts with the message “What’s your religion? That’s not important”. As the report pointed out, top religious figures will resist change because it will erode their power. But if enough people turn against the system, it may yet crumble. One may hope for a wider effect, with religious figures in general being recognised as having no special expertise, and no entitlement to any more respect or influence than other citizens.

Back in Britain, there has been much fuss over a joke memo about the Pope’s visit that was prepared in the Foreign Office. It included entertaining suggestions like a visit to an abortion clinic, a blessing of a same-sex marriage and the launch of Benedict-branded condoms. But what should the Vatican have expected? Here’s a guy whose institution makes him out to be really important, so that we should pay attention to his views. Well then, he can expect to get the attention of those who think he is wrong, as well as those who think he is right. If it were generally accepted that he was just a regular guy who had some opinions, which counted for no more or less than anyone else’s opinions, then he wouldn’t be the butt of jokes like this one.

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