Belief does not make you moral

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is Easter weekend and thousands of men up and down the country are driving to vast, cathedral-like buildings on the edge of town. They park their cars and lead their families inside, striding up the nearest aisle in preparation for a familiar ritual. Half an hour later, they emerge: the children fractious, the mother bored, the father eager to put into practice the advice he has gleaned during this annual visit. To alien beings visiting Earth for the first time, the obvious conclusion would be that they are all worshippers at the shrine of the great god B&Q.

It is Easter weekend and thousands of men up and down the country are driving to vast, cathedral-like buildings on the edge of town. They park their cars and lead their families inside, striding up the nearest aisle in preparation for a familiar ritual. Half an hour later, they emerge: the children fractious, the mother bored, the father eager to put into practice the advice he has gleaned during this annual visit. To alien beings visiting Earth for the first time, the obvious conclusion would be that they are all worshippers at the shrine of the great god B&Q.

Even during one of the most important festivals in the Christian calendar, it is a fair bet that many more people will get down to a bit of DIY than visit their local church. B&Q estimates that 26 million people will start tiling the bathroom or stripping floorboards this weekend, activities only distantly linked to Easter's traditional significance as a cycle of suffering, death and resurrection. At least I think that is what it is supposed to be. Growing up in a non-religious household, my parents and I exchanged Easter eggs on Good Friday, a custom which later drew a stern rebuke from a boyfriend who had been raised in a devout Anglican household.

This struck me as odd, not because I had been getting it wrong all those years, but because he was an atheist. So what if we were tucking into our chocolate eggs on the wrong day? Looking back on it, I suppose he was a cultural Christian, in the way that non-believing friends of mine from the Middle East regard themselves as cultural Muslims. If we are honest, this is the only sense in which we can still claim to be living in a Christian country, given that the vast majority of us no longer go to church, as this paper reported only last Sunday.

This is a very good thing. Whatever the denomination, religion is a mixture of myth and superstition that provides a woefully inadequate basis for the kind of morality we need in a modern democracy. I know this flies in the face of received wisdom, which links the decline in church attendance with increasing materialism. People cannot behave well, it is claimed, unless they have divine guidance, such as the Ten Commandments. For atheists, this is a non sequitur. Since we do not believe in God, it follows that Christian morality is a human invention, and a somewhat primitive one. So there is no reason why other, more rational forms of morality should not work just as well, especially when they are based on something more dignified than the crude carrot-and-stick model favoured by Christianity.

The problem for the churches, of course, is that they have a pessimistic view of human nature. They do not believe in altruism. They think everyone needs to be threatened and cajoled into behaving well, instead of adopting a set of principles and sticking to them because they are clear and just. Nor have they noticed that people who are treated decently tend, on the whole, to behave reasonably to the human beings they share the planet with - a phenomenon which is currently taxing the brains of evolutionary psychologists, another group that is uneasy with the concept of altruism.

In my parents' atheist household, I was brought up to believe in a long list of universal human rights. (That, by the way, is how I knew straightaway that the military coup in Chile in 1973 was evil. The Vatican was not so sure, even when some of its own priests were tortured. There is a famous picture of Pope John Paul II sharing a balcony with General Augusto Pinochet, the Beast of Santiago, a mere 14 years after the coup.) Many of my beliefs are expressed in the European Convention on Human Rights, which will be incorporated into British law this autumn - another example of how our nation is abandoning its reliance on fairy tales and becoming more mature.

Abstract principles such as fairness and equality are a far better guide to behaviour than paternalistic deities, benign or otherwise. For all its pretensions, religious belief has always been a poor predictor of how well or badly someone will behave. The Crusades, the Inquisition and the conflict in Northern Ireland were all driven by people who killed and tortured in the name of their God, showing the usual intolerance to believers whose convictions deviated, sometimes minutely, from their own.

Against this background, believers have a colossal cheek to conflate atheism with immorality. It is true that we do not share their obsession with regulating sexuality: who consenting adults have sex with, and how they do it, has always seemed to me a question of individual preference, not a subject for pronouncements by (frequently celibate) clergy. Yet in the United States, immorality has become synonymous with extra-marital sex, while evangelical Christians eagerly support human rights abuses such as the death penalty, keeping lethal weapons at home and, in extreme cases, attacks on abortion clinics.

Fortunately, you won't find any of this eye-for-an-eye stuff at your local DIY superstore, which is why I am delighted that so many people are spending the holiday weekend on harmless pursuits such as building a new barbecue. And, yes, I did eat my Easter egg - actually a box of chocolate truffles - on Good Friday.

When ageing rock stars boast about the number of women they have slept with, even if it runs into three figures, the reaction is usually admiring. When women get into the numbers game, it is another story.

A case in point is Grace Quek, a 27-year-old woman from Singapore who went to California and recreated herself as Annabel Chong, porn star. Her new film, Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, which opened here last week, is an expose of the porn industry. It includes scenes in which Ms Quek waits for the result of an Aids test, cuts herself with a razor and reveals that she was raped by two men at the age of 18.

This is hardly your average blue movie material, and Ms Quek insists that the film is an attempt to go behind the stereotype of the porn star as victim.

The problem is that she is best known, in her Chong persona, as the woman who had sex 251 times in 10 hours for a porn video made five years ago, a fact which seems to have mesmerised reviewers. It isn't my cup of tea but I'm sure that an actor who aspired to this kind of record would become a cult hero. Yet most critics ended up condemning her as much as the industry.

"Chong is a figure utterly without dignity," declared the Guardian. Viewers may conclude that she is "a self-deluding casualty", according to the Times. It is not "cheery Boogie Nights-style kitsch", complained the Scotsman, as though there was anything cheerful about that dismal, voyeuristic cinema marathon. Double standards are alive and well, it seems, even in the porn industry. 1 of 16

Comments