The story so far: we live in a tiny part of an unimaginably huge cosmos in which there are billions of stars, planets and asteroids separated not by nothing, but by constantly moving and interacting particles. Even here, on this minute speck of rock and water, zillions of microbes evolve, take on and lose genetic material constantly. What exists around us and outside us and independently of us, is incredibly varied and complex.
These days there aren’t many religious people who would dispute any of that. By and large they would adduce to it to the Creator’s supreme capacity for construction. That’s God for you, they might say. A big picture deity, the Wonder of Wonders.
That’s cool by me. I don’t need an Almighty, but since no one will ever be able to prove there isn’t one and (like the North Korean hydrogen bomb) we have to hope that no one will ever be able to prove that there IS one, it’s something I don’t feel compelled to argue about.
Faith, then, is one thing. Religious doctrine, however, is another. With that omnipotent Great Designer doing everything from impelling the motion of atoms to managing volcanoes, why do so many Believers insist on His interest in the relatively utterly insignificant minutiae of human behaviour?
This thought was suggested by two recent socio-religious controversies in Britain, both involving Christianity. Or supposedly involving Christianity. The first was the Rees Mogg affair and the second the case of the Isle of Wight Rowes.
Mr Jacob Rees Mogg, a silver spoonfed millionaire banker who may well not know anyone who lives in a house with a number is, in these End Times, considered a possible Tory leader. He called his sixth child Sixtus. He is a Catholic, as are four million or so other British citizens.
Recently, when interviewed on television, Mr Rees Mogg reiterated his opposition to abortion under any circumstances, including of conceptions resulting from incest and rape.
“Rape”, he said, “is a great evil and a terrible crime, but that’s not made better by then aborting the unborn child.” This last clause, if nothing else, suggests Mr Rees Mogg’s deficiency in sympathetic imagination; an unwanted child might well make a rape victim’s situation worse.
But that wasn’t it. It was Mr Rees Mogg’s categorical assertion that “life begins at the point of conception”, according to a Church whose “teachings are authoritative”. Maybe, but on abortion those teachings not only don’t go back to Jesus, they go back only to 1869 and an Apostolic Act adumbrated by the notoriously reactionary Pius IX. Before that, the church had no such position. Did God speak in 1869?
Mr Rees Mogg presumably and on the same basis believes that masturbation is a mortal sin — a much older precept of his church. But the interview was on ITV’s breakfast show and that’s a bit early to discuss such things. And one of the interviewers was Piers Morgan, so enough said.
The Rowes, you will recall, were the “devoutly Christian” couple (the antonyms to “devout” are “insincere”, “lapsed” and “apathetic”) whose son became so confused by a child turning up for primary school dressed one day as a girl and the next as a boy, that they had no recourse but to remove him from the school, to begin home education and — naturally — to sue the school. A very unapathetic thing to do.
But what had this to do with religion? Their son’s confusion, whatever its source, could scarcely be said to be religious in nature. Wrong apparently. As Christians, said Mr Rowe, “We have a social understanding that we have boys and we have girls. There’s a distinct difference between male and female, not just in what you wear but also within our DNA, the way that we are as boys and the way that we are as girls.”
And so this Christian “social understanding” — presumably divinely inspired if not ordained — was held by the devout Rowes to cover whether a child could reasonably come to school one day in a dress and the next in trousers.
How odd. The God of Planets and Molecules is supposed to be also the God of deciding when people — all people at all times — should and shouldn’t have babies, should and shouldn’t indulge in a J Arthur, should and shouldn’t turn on a light switch, should and shouldn’t wear a scarf, should and shouldn’t swap a skirt for a pair of shorts. But O Lord, how the devout waste your time. And ours.
David Aaronovitch is a columnist for The Times