Tuesday, 28 May 2013

If you change your mind...

I saw The Book of Mormon recently. Bloody good fun it was, and considerably more positive about the Mormons than some of the hysterical conservative press would have you believe. The Mormons are a funny lot - their absolute faith in their president being a living prophet, and their belief in the existence of the golden plates for example, despite nobody ever having set eyes on them, are excellent standards of the blindness of religious certainty. They are, though, to be praised for their response to the musical itself. Not for them mass demonstrations, burning torches and the promise of damnation for the creators. Rather, they've plastered central London with adverts for their faith and generally tried to engage with it. Kudos to them.

On that certainty, though. This piece on the Beeb caught my eye not long after I'd seen the show. I've written on here before about some of the central tenets around which religions are built - the concept of original sin in the Catholic Church, for example. The struggle between such pillars of belief systems and the need of all faiths to modernise if they want to engage with modern people, particularly in the West, cannot be a simple one.

We live, in Britain at the moment, in a society which is riven with examples of the trouble these certainties can cause, whether they're theological certainties or secular ones. Aircraft grounded on the way in from Pakistan, vehicles stopped mid-motorway, attacks on Mosques - knee-jerk reaction to an act of unspeakable and all too human brutality in Woolwich, nothing to do with religious teachings. At such times, it's only natural to lean on one's own convictions, the beliefs that sustain you when things are shit. When those convictions are born of religious faith, though, is that necessarily helpful? The divisions between religious and secular, and between the faiths themselves, seem to be widening at the moment. A little more doubt, a little more questioning, would probably do us all a bit of good.

It is such questioning, such reinterpretation, that has allowed some religious thinking to survive at all in a smaller, less credulous and more integrated world, and find its place in the modern West. It can be done – the same Church that persecuted Galileo for stating that the Earth revolved around the sun, heresy at the time, found itself formally exonerating him in the late 20th century, when it was kind of stupid to argue otherwise. The Vatican now has its own 'in-house' astronomer, no less.

If only all such changes of position could be so completely arranged, so comprehensively and neatly played out. I wonder, over the centuries, how many groups of learned elders have pored over their religious tract of choice, seeking guidance from their Almighty on some startling new revelation, some new science which casts doubt on the previously solid pillars around which their faith were built? At what point did the Vatican realise, for example, that Galileo was right? Did they secretly realise he was on to something even during the man's lifetime, only to hide the truth, knowing how dangerous to their Church it would be? Given the AIDS crisis in Africa, will they ever get round to addressing the use of condoms? And how would the various Churches deal with First Contact, when and if it eventually happens?

I have to go back to The Book of Mormon for what I suspect lies behind the response to some of the more shattering revelations science may afford us from time to time. (And, yes, those revelations may yet of course back up things that the theologians have been saying). One of the better songs in the thing addressed how to deal with thoughts or feelings that conflicted with Mormon teachings.

"Turn it off, like a light switch. Just go click! It's a cool little Mormon trick! We do it all the time. When you're feeling certain feels that just don't feel right, treat those pesky feelings like a reading light, and turn 'em off."

It'd be cool indeed of some of the more outdated, conflicting and downright idiotic religious shibboleths could be similarly excised, but as Galileo's pardon took 360 years, I'm not expecting miracles.

Health scares

I've written in these pages before about the Tories' fundamental inability to grasp the concept of the NHS, a huge organisation which does not exist to make money and is therefore completely beyond their comprehension.

Latest suggestions on a prominent Tory forum include limiting the number of times anybody can visit a GP. This, of course, goes against an NHS constitutional principle that access is based on clinical need. God forbid you should have some problem which required repeated visits. "Well, Mr Smith, I'm afraid to tell you that several tests on your shoulder pain have proved inconclusive, and you've now run out of visits. If I were you I'd go home and pray it's not an acute case of gammy-arm-falls-off-at-the-jointitis. See you next year!"

It's only fair to point out of course, that this is not a stated policy aim of the government, merely a right-wing discussion forum shooting the breeze. Like most Tory Health ideas though, the very concept, of course, has been less than warmly welcomed by the professionals it's likely to affect. The Chairman of the BMA's GPs committee certainly hasn't pulled any punches - Health Minister Jeremy Hunt has evidently irked the BMA on GP-related matters generally: Hunt "...keeps on tweeting and speaking a childishly superficial and misleading analysis of a very complex problem," according to the good Doctor Buckman.

Petitions are already being raised, objections voiced. Some of the Tories' more hare-brained ideas on the NHS have already died as a result, in part, of the hugely negative reaction from both professionals and public. With any luck this will be still-born too.