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Malachi O'Doherty

I can't believe in a God who would be impressed by people following rules because they are told to

Malachi O'Doherty


You only need listen to Thought For The Day to realise how trivial much religious discussion is

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'When councillor John Carson said that the coronavirus was God's riposte to a sinful society, he was reciting one of the least contentious ideas within the Christian circles in which he moves.' (stock photo)

'When councillor John Carson said that the coronavirus was God's riposte to a sinful society, he was reciting one of the least contentious ideas within the Christian circles in which he moves.' (stock photo)

'When councillor John Carson said that the coronavirus was God's riposte to a sinful society, he was reciting one of the least contentious ideas within the Christian circles in which he moves.' (stock photo)

When councillor John Carson said that the coronavirus was God's riposte to a sinful society, he was reciting one of the least contentious ideas within the Christian circles in which he moves. The Bible records recurring prophesies that the people of God will be punished collectively for their sins.

So, when captive in Babylon, they had brought it on themselves, and the only way out of captivity was to live righteously, according to the law.

The New Testament is more generous to the sinner, but close to his end Jesus says, "Weep not for me, but for your children", a line that is taken to foretell the alienation and persecution of the Jews, rejected by the world as they rejected the messiah.

In my book I Was A Teenage Catholic, I quoted Fr Reginald Walker's An Outline History of the Catholic Church, which reflected on the grief visited upon people during the Second World War, blaming Protestants for the whole catastrophe.

"The crash of ancient and majestic cities into bloodied ruins is but the outward result of the gradual inner collapse of all religious beliefs and moral standards of right and wrong in the non-Catholic world since the Protestant Reformation."

Sometimes, people have paid dearly for stating plainly religious convictions like these, which others carry lightly and unquestioningly.

Glenn Hoddle, the England football manager, lost his job for expressing his belief that those who suffer in this life are paying for their behaviour in past lives.

Perhaps a billion people believe in that law of karma, which, crudely interpreted, says this life is a reward, or punishment, for behaviour in past lives. You reap what you sow.

A corollary of this thinking is that, if you are devout and keep the rules of your Church, then God will look after you.

But there is a difference between the idea of karma and the biblical threat. By karma, people are rewarded, or punished, individually. In the biblical tradition, the rewards and punishments are collective.

So, the perfectly decent and diligent grandfather, who is having his lungs eaten by the virus, is suffering because a woman he probably doesn't even know has had an abortion.

And if a good and holy person does get the virus, then that will be because the Lord moves in mysterious ways.

That old saying points to what distinguishes religion from magic and from science: it isn't teleological. It doesn't work by cause and effect. You don't put one thing in and get another thing out. You can be a sinner all your life and still make loads of money.

But that also should mean that you can love a person of the same sex as yourself and enjoy the warmest, deepest intimacy and that no one will be struck down by a virus in a nursing home on your account.

The comfort of thinking otherwise is naive and smug. It is the satisfaction of praying like the pharisee, "Lord, I am not like the others."

I do not belong to any Church. I have been through two phases in my life in which I was deeply religious, one in my teens, when I wanted to be a priest, and one in my mid-20s, when I lived as the disciple of a Hindu swami.

I survived both spells and retained an interest in religion and religious people.

I have walked through the old town of Jerusalem in the evening and heard the Muezzin call the faithful to prayer. I have watched a Muslim tie his camel to a palm tree and set out his mat and kneel and prostrate himself before the rising moon and thought it one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.

For years, I worked in religious affairs broadcasting in BBC Northern Ireland and met most of the clergy of all Churches over the years and thought some of them were crass and cynical, that some were superstitious and simple-minded and that many were thoughtful and considerate people, who questioned their own convictions every day.

You only have to listen to Thought For The Day most mornings to realise how trite most discussion of religion is here.

But that isn't all of it. In the last year of his life, I met Bishop Eddie Daly in Derry. He was then living near to the hospice and giving comfort to the dying and was highly thought of for this work. I asked him what he expected after death and he said, "No one really knows." And I laughed and said, but it's your job to know.

The evangelical Christian will claim to have solid, dependable truth of the kind that sets one apart from the doubters and questioners. That's what I call superstition; it's the very defining characteristic of it. It calls an end to questing. It provides an idea of God little different from Santa Claus.

But there are people in the Churches who have moved beyond the child's catechism and Sunday School and live with a sense of mystery, rather than a settled conviction that they have a sure truth to live by.

You can see that difference among religious people everywhere. In India, you will meet the Brahmin, rattling out prayers as if they were magic formulae, content that the routine of worship is enough. But you will also meet those who pray wordlessly with a sense that to put a name on the holy is to delude yourself that you comprehend it.

The idea of a God who delivers collective punishment on whole societies may have been a good device for holding together a community, keeping everybody in line, particularly useful to nomadic tribes and serviceable still, apparently, in Ballymena.

Some of those rules about diet and hygiene were good. Even laws against abortion, onanism and homosexuality had a logical relation to the continuation of an endangered population. Context is everything.

And fear is a good enough reason for people to huddle together and imagine there is solace beyond the darkness.

The rabbi in the Netflix series Unorthodox says, every time we have tried to fit in with others, the Lord has punished us. There are many similar religious movements around the world telling their followers, do as you're told, ask no questions and you'll be safe.

What is paltry about this kind of religion is that it says morality is merely obedience to rules. It provides no opportunity for the development of conscience, or even common sense. It takes comfort from trusting that the rest of us are damned. I could not believe in a God who was impressed by that.

Belfast Telegraph