Politics and religion: now OK to discuss at dinner (mostly)
I had a chuckle recently when I read about the scandal ahead of Pope Benedict’s September visit to the UK.
A young civil servant, after a brainstorming session with a group of junior officers in the UK Foreign Office, sent an email outlining suggestions for the “Ideal Pope visit”, such as opening an abortion clinic and launching a range of “Benedict” condoms.
This sparked outrage and of course, an immediate apology.
But the list of suggestions read like Tom Cruise’s Mission Statement in Jerry Maguire and resembled the kind of truth some people speak when they’ve had too much to drink – totally unprofessional and disrespectful.
As I continued to read, I nervously sniggered as I remembered the old saying that politics and religion should never be discussed in polite company. I wonder how much that applies today. Is it still true or are there limits to what we can or will honestly discuss?
Western politics are not what they used to be. I’m sure that deals are still conducted under the table and that all sorts of corruption still exists but hiding these things is not as simple as it once was.
Take this week’s “bigoted woman” gaffe by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown– something as simple leaving your microphone on has potentially changed the course of his current re-election campaign.
A traditional gentleman’s agreement or a hefty pay off is no longer a guarantee that things will disappear or alternatively, work in your favour.
The internet has helped to expose a more diverse range of political views and activities and it’s clear that people have no fears about speaking up.
The anonymity of the web allows people to discuss all of their opinions and conspiracies from the comfort of their laptop, separate from those who either agree or disagree with them. Unlike times gone by when a heated political debate might lead to fists flying or worse still death, now it can end at the pressing of an off switch. This is healthy – the internet allows those opinions to be shared. It’s like conducting a peaceful protest from your armchair.
Politicians love this new medium too: it’s a new and cheap vehicle for canvassing and spreading both policies and rumours. Competition is always fierce in a popularity contest and conquering the internet is now a vital ingredient for any campaign.
Everyone wants a more honest brand of politics and after years of protests, wars, strikes and the arrival of the internet, not to mention brave journalism, you could argue that that in some ways politics is finally heading that way.
But what about religion, is it as transparent as politics, can we discuss it with greater ease these days?
Most people are aware that religion is a highly sensitive topic. Most religions are based on belief in something greater than ourselves, something divine that we’ve learnt through teachings, prophecies and sacred documents. Belief is extremely powerful; it is something that many people have been willing to die to defend.
Faith can bind a faction or nation, create common rules to live by, give hope and at the same time, instil fear. Fear is especially powerful, particularly the fear of the unknown. Not a wonder that over the years, at a common level, people rarely questioned the actions or rulings of their faith.
There is enough historical evidence to confirm that across all major religions and movements in the past, going against ones faith often had serious repercussions – it still does today. But certainly in some major movements this trend has started to change.
A lot has changed in the last 100 years and there are now more defined lines between people’s beliefs and those who teach and govern them. Unlike many years ago, people are starting to feel more confident that they can still have a firm faith in a deity or an ultimate truth but at the same time question some of its teachings.
Topics like sexuality, women, contraception and abortion are now finally being openly discussed from a religious perspective. That said, despite this increasing vocalisation within religions – where matters don’t directly concern us, many people remain tight lipped about their faith.
Politics is something we own, we created it and have a right to discuss and change it. Religion on the other hand is still something surrounded by mystery, so much of it relies on our acceptance of facts that often we cannot prove. Our options are to either believe the sceptics or accept the teachings of our faith.
Is that old maxim about not discussing politics or religion in polite society changing? It seems so. But total transparency and openness on issues – be it in politics or religion – has proved impossible.
This total transparency is the ideal of many and something that could potentially resolve the world’s problems. But would it? Where is the line now on what can and can’t be discussed in polite society?
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