Rushdie interview

Salman Rushdie spoke about religion and atheism, in an interview on the Canadian CBC news site

Q: ……. Is this a comment on the current vogue for atheism?

A: Maybe it’s making a slight comeback. In the ’60s and ’70s, religion was in extreme retreat. It really felt as if that subject was over. The idea that we would have to reckon with religion as a major force in public life would have seemed absurd, if you had suggested it to me when I was in my 20s.

For someone of my generation, what’s been shocking is the way that religion has rushed back and returned to public life. And it’s only happened since the 1980s. In the Eastern hemisphere, it’s the rise of radical Islam and here it has to do with the Christian right.

Absolutely right. Ideas that seemed twenty years ago to have only historical value are now powerful mass motivators.

Rushdie says that he differs slightly from Hitchens or Dawkins in that:

… I have no problem with religion, as long as it’s private. If people find it consoling or uplifting or nourishing – not my business. Why should I dictate to people what they should enjoy? I may think they’re dumb, but it’s not my business. Where it becomes my business is when it comes into the public arena and is a social and political force that seeks to impose certain norms on society. Then, I think it becomes a malicious force.

Well, yes. I tend to agree with him here. We all have an infinite number of false beliefs and they are noone else’s concern, no matter how dumb, unless we act upon them in ways that have an impact on other people.

But, playing Devil’s Advocate, religion can never really be a wholly private matter. It’s socially transmitted. A patchwork of individually derived superstitions is one thing. A (more-or-less) internally coherent belief system is another. It requires central authority to propagate its ideas. mechanisms for transmitting its message and, apparently, having been organised, it needs to strengthen its internal cohesion by defining non-believers as other. (*)

Can you have a personal god belief that’s not produced through society? It doesn’t seem likely. Believing in a concept of “gods” isn’t an automatic response to the wonders of the universe. Otherwise, people wouldn’t bother to indoctrinate their young into their belief systems. We would all be born fully formed christians or muslims or hindus or whatever. Or, at least, all religions would be singing from the same hymnsheet.

I’m not convinced that a personal god can be so easily separated from socially organised belief. However, if anyone knows what can happen when you challenge organised religion, it’s Salman Rushdie. So, I take his point that individual folly hardly matters when mass folly is so dangerous.

(*) Sorry, sociological and philosophical pedants, I know I am reifying religion here. It’s just a rough description, OK?

Mid-knight’s Children

Salman Rushdie’s knighthood has caused some very predictable results in Pakistan and Iran.

I can’t help being suspicious over the timing of this. There have been plenty of opportunities to honour Rushdie since the Ayatollah’s fatwa was placed on him, but it seems the UK wasn’t too keen to antagonise Iran.

Until now.

Do you have to be a conspiracy theorist to see this as unfortunate timing?

I normally draw a pretty rigid line against the idea that the US is led by people so demented they will blow up the Twin Towers or whatever to justify a war, so I’m normally all for applying Occam’s Razor. (Explanations based on normal RealPolitik usually suffice and are usually grubby enough.)

However, applying Occam’s Razor in this instance, it is quite hard to believe that our leaders are so naive that they thought “Oh Gosh, that nice Salman Rushdie. We haven’t shown him how good we thought Midnight’s Children was” without remembering that he was still subject to a death sentence for blasphemy based on the Satanic Verses.

So the kinighthood thus comes to look like an act designed only to stir up more fanatical suicide bombers and to enrage Iran even more, thus opening the way for the war with Iran that we’ve all been dreading or looking forward to (depending on the number of shares we hold in Haliburton or oil companies.)

Still, I remain impressed that you can apparently now get a honour without handing over a few million in loans to one political party or another.