Had the Daily Mail existed in the fifth century BC – when some of its social attitudes seem to have been formed – it might well have run a Hebrew version of the front page which appeared one day last week.
"So what is safe to eat?" the paper demanded, criticising a "bombshell report" which advises against eating bacon, ham and sausages. The Mail is cross about the idea of a group of international cancer experts telling the public how it should eat, forgetting that such advice has been offered for at least 2,500 years, and from much less authoritative sources. In both the Old Testament and the Torah, God tells Moses to keep away from pork, while being inexplicably relaxed about eating grasshoppers and bald locusts.
Anthropologists explain the wonderfully named Abominations of Leviticus, which were put together between 550BC and 400BC, by saying that nomadic tribes roaming the Middle East in intense heat required dietary advice to avoid getting sick from unfamiliar sources of food.
Modern-day Europeans need it for the opposite reason, namely that food has become so familiar and widely available that we don't realise how bad it is for our health. Few Brits have to be told to avoid eating swan, but we do need warnings about processed meat, no matter how delicious – can I really give up chorizo? – and the risks of being even slightly overweight.
The angry reaction to the latest advice confuses knowledge and morality, as though experts who provide clear scientific information are implicitly making judgements on lifestyle. They're not, and it's up to us what we do with their warnings – a very different state of affairs from the food rules offered by the Bible, where the tribes to whom they're addressed have no choice in the matter.
But the anonymous authors of Leviticus don't stop there; sounding a bit like Chris Moyles, they warn men against marrying "whores", a category in which it's all too easy to find yourself if you happen to be a modern woman. That's why I take issue with Cherie Booth QC, who made a widely reported speech at Chatham House last week. Declaring that human rights are universal – a sentiment I share, obviously – Ms Booth went on to criticise unequal divorce laws in Muslim countries and the position of women in Orthodox Jewish communities.
I get uneasy when Roman Catholics start lecturing other faiths about their treatment of women; Ms Booth opposes abortion and the Vatican is actually less liberal on this matter than some Muslim clerics. But the real problem is her insistence that religious leaders, not religious texts, are to blame for the discrimination women continue to suffer. What's common to the three major monotheistic religions is a stream of instructions on how to deal with women, from prohibitions in the Bible and the Torah on sex during menstruation to a famous passage in the Koran which tells husbands they are allowed to beat disobedient wives.
This is no accident, and it's pointless to deny it when the words are there for anyone to read. Religious texts were written thousands of years ago to address the most basic male anxieties, and that's why they're full of instructions about food, women and sex; eating the wrong thing can kill you, marrying the wrong woman undermines your authority, and sex – well, everyone knows what havoc that can wreak on the male psyche.
These days, I'm happy to say, we have much more reliable sources of information and can do the moral bit for ourselves. Three cheers for experts, even if I don't like what they have to say about my diet.Reuse content