23 November 2007

Snakes and Splinters

As you'll have probably noticed, if you've not just arrived, I'm a huge fan of Alan Moore's work. If you've not heard of the bearded sage of Northampton, you could do worse than watch this fine tribute which begins as follows:
'Alan Moore is a writer and magician from Northampton. He's a stranger to hairdressers, and worships his very own god in his very own way, blurring the lines between religious belief, magic, and the power of the creative imagination. If you film him from strange angles, you can make him look very sinister.'
As NMRBoy confirmed to me the other day, yes, that opening passage is spoken by Stewart Lee, specifically from his 'Don't Get Me Started' episode about religion. While I'm afraid Moore's own beliefs rather baffle me - they have the virtues of creativity and tolerance and the failing of, well, being patently barmy - he makes some good points about others' beliefs, notably about what he refers to as 'nineteen thirties tent-show revivalism'.

The show in general is worth watching, because even if Lee doesn't quite hit the mark with regard to the rightness of religious belief and practice, he's far sharper on how it can go wrong: 'at their worst, religions have been used to excuse the most vicious aspects of human nature, legitimising persecution, genocide, slavery, and war. When religions embody immorality and irrationality they must be open to criticism.'

That's the kind of claim that tends to inspire Pavlovian reactions - nods of assent from militant atheists, snorts of derision from aggrieved believers, and smug shrugs from those all too willing to point the finger at followers of faiths other than their own. It deserves a bit more thought than that.

For starters, Lee isn't claiming that religion poisons everything, or that it's the cause of much of the world's evil, as the likes of Christopher Hitchens maintain; rather, Lee attributes the evil to human nature itself. His point is that religion can provide a pretext or a veneer of legitimacy for how that evil plays out. He never says it's the only thing that does this.

For all that, though, it is painfully true that religion has all too often legitimised all manner of abominations, and it's worth learning exactly what sort of horrors have been committed in the name of God. We shouldn't hide from this. The very earliest Christian document we have exhorts us to test everything, after all, and to hold to what is true. It doesn't ask us to shut our eyes. As I've said before, it's innocence that we're called to, not ignorance.

Of course, we can easily finish our studies with our smugness intact. Genocide? Slavery? Human sacrifice? Holy war? The inquistion? Surely not I, Lord? Hopefully not, but I suspect we treat people like things in more prosaic ways far more often than we realise. As Chesterton's most famous creation observed, the only real spiritual disease consists of 'thinking one is quite well'.

He may well have been thinking of the Gospel reading from just a few weeks ago.

Anyway, rant over. In an ideal world I'd end this post by linking to the YouTube clip I was sent during the week of the latest episode of The Simpsons, which features not merely Alan Moore himself but also Art Spiegelman and Dan Clowes too.

Alas, copyright rules mean that it's no longer online - and indeed shouldn't have been in the first place - so you'll have to find another way to listen to that midlands rumble in 'Husbands and Knives'.

Sorry about that.

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