Posted by Tania Kindersley.
I should not do this. I should not. I can quite easily stop typing and walk away and put up a nice picture of baby penguins and there will be no trouble. But, oh, oh, oh, I can't. I have to get cross about God. Or, more precisely, his representatives here on earth. I am not quite built sturdily enough to be a true contrarian, although I think quite a lot of contrary things (and live them too; you just try refusing to have children and wait until you get the womb comments). I do not especially enjoy stirring up controversy. I am absurdly conscious of people's tender feelings, and do not wish to trample on them.
My atheism is a quiet, deeply felt thing. It is not of the shouting in the marketplace variety. It came to me when I was fourteen, and has never left. It does not make me dismiss all religious people as wrong. I do not hold them responsible for the ills done in religion's name, any more than I would hold atheists responsible for Stalin. One of the best men I ever met in my life was a priest called Father Gary. It's just that I cannot believe in a good God when there are earthquakes and tsunamis and genocide and child rape and people dying needlessly of diseases which any pharmaceutical company could stop with a click of its fingers. Can't do it. I listened to a prelate trying to explain Haiti on the Today Programme a few weeks ago and there was nothing there that made any sense. He kept speaking of Jesus coming down to earth, as if that made it all all right that 200,000 people were dead.
So what usually happens is that I trundle along, not believing, whilst trying to understand people who do. It is the exhausting liberal in me, which insists on seeing all sides of an argument. And then something happens which makes me so cross that I must shout, and there is a danger of startling the horses. Today it came in the unlikely form of the Bishop of Swindon. Swindon is more famous for its mini-roundabouts than its deep philosophical thought, but for some reason The World at One decided that its bishop was the man to pronounce on the argument over assisted dying. This has been smouldering along for months now, but has sparked back into life after a man told the BBC this morning that he killed his lover, who was dying, agonisingly, of AIDS.
It is an incredibly delicate ethical area, and thoughtful people are right to address it with care. Oddly, although I see nuance in almost everything, I think it a fairly simple moral proposition that if someone is stricken with a mortal sickness, and is in unimaginable pain, it should be legal to give them an overdose of morphine, so that they may die with dignity. This seems to me an act of humanity and grace. I understand that there are dangers, and slippery slopes, and the old canard about venal children bumping off grandma so they can get the silver. I understand that you cannot just say, sure, kill the sick people all you like, here's the syringe. I understand any new legislation must be written with the utmost care by the highest legal minds. I understand there must be all manner of caveats. What I do not understand is how someone can refuse even to countenance the idea because of their own personal belief system. To insist that someone else must suffer because of what you have read in your own chosen book appears to be the opposite of goodness and kindness. This is what the church is saying. There is no argument: it is just flat wrong, because God says so.
And so the Bishop must be invited onto the radio, and must dismiss any notion that helping someone in great pain to go gently into that good night is an understandable act. He must be listened to with great reverence, because he is a man of the cloth; he gets the trump card in ethics simply because of his church. I am sure he is a good and moral man, but he is not being asked to pronounce because of his own character or expertise or intellect, but merely because of his position. He is part of an organisation that discriminates against women (see the fury currently running about the idea of women bishops, as if the ladies will sully the mitre by the very fact of having ovaries) and homosexuals (do not even get me started on the God hates Fags crowd). Yet he is allowed to insist that a person in screaming agony must gasp out their last breaths, from day to day, to please his idea of what is right. How can it be right to force a guttering life, which has nothing left in it but suffering, to run to a few extra days or weeks, simply because of something someone wrote in a book two thousand years ago? It seems to me monstrous selfishness. And so I end up shouting at the radio, like one of those crazed old women who don't get out enough.
So much for the whimsy, and the penguins. I have been serious, that great British sin. I must return at once to irony, where it is safe. I apologise for the interruption in normal transmission. And if any horses were startled during the making of this programme, I apologise for that too.
Now for the picture of the day. I know this is a bit simplistic and bumper-stickery, and certainly written by a person who has not necessarily struggled with the raging torrents of metaphysics, but as an ethical frame to live by, it's not a bad one to come up with in only seven words:
(Via Home Sweet Home.)