The Curious Incident of the Herald in the Night-Time
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
Disc jockey, TV presenter, charity fundraiser, knight of the realm, and now alleged rapist and paedophile, it seems everybody has an opinion on Sir Jimmy Savile. Or as I suppose I should call him, devout Catholic Sir Jimmy Savile.
That probably seems like a cheap shot, but it’s not. I don’t think his religious beliefs have anything to do with his behaviour. But Dr William Oddie, writing for the Catholic Herald, was very upset last year that Savile’s faith wasn’t generally a major focus of his obituaries, calling it a “conspiracy of silence”. He wanted to make the connection between Savile’s beliefs and his actions, so it’s only fair to take him at his word.
I confess that I haven’t been devotedly following every twist and turn of this story, but I’ve yet to see any reports which connect his alleged crimes to his Catholicism. Despite that, neither Dr Oddie nor the Catholic Herald have uttered a word of complaint. How peculiar, when they were previously so keen to insist that his beliefs informed his actions.
Having got the sarcasm out of my system, there’s an important point here. People are complicated and their motivations are always opaque, but while religions try to claim credit for good actions wherever they can, they always find a reason (or more cynically, an excuse) for distancing religion from the bad things done by believers.
The church often claims the credit for ending slavery, while studiously ignoring the fact that the Bible endorses slavery and the church was content to follow that line for 1800 years. Philanthropists are claimed as evidence of the good in religion, while crusaders and inquisitors are simply dismissed as sinners or even liars about their beliefs – a classic No True Christian argument.
And yes, this works the other way as well. Atheists who are only too happy to point the finger at religion as the cause of all sorts of conflict and suffering will suddenly become very careful and pedantic when discussing certain well-known totalitarian atheist regimes. It seems we’re all much better at examining the details when our own beliefs are under attack.
Given that the vast majority of people throughout history have had a religious belief of some sort, it’s no surprise that religion has a mixed record. The problems start when you start differentiating between the positive and negative acts by employing different criteria for determining the influence of religion. It might give you the answer you want, but it does nothing to determine the truth, which is surely what we’re all interested in.
So don’t just accept it when a claimed association between beliefs and actions matches your prejudices, and don’t just dismiss it when your prejudices are challenged. Otherwise, you might end up looking as foolish as Dr Oddie and the Catholic Herald.
Photo by Bryan Ledgard, used under Creative Commons Sharealike License