The problem with atheists is that they are so theologically naïve. A good example is what they imagine is the fear of hell with which Catholic priests terrorize their unfortunate parishioners. Dawkins’ website is awash with stories of girls who fled convents where they were being terrorized by nuns into the Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Science and Reason’s welcoming arms. (I’m afraid in their cases they probably were). Then what about those doom pictures in medieval churches with their portrayals of leering demons roasting naked sinners on pitchforks? What more proof do you need that religion is a sickness of the mind? That’s what religion does for you. But together we can find a cure.
I have been a Catholic for most of my life and I have to say I have never met a fellow believer who thought he and, in view of the terrorized ex-convent victims who always seem to be female, even she were going to go to hell. On the contrary, all too often Catholics dodge their taxes and sleep around with equanimity because they think they can go to confession on their deathbeds. I hesitate to put forward Signor Berlusconi, whose canonization I imagine to be some way off, as an exemplar of our faith, but can you imagine a Protestant, and certainly not the ex-Protestant Professor Dawkins who is so delighted that the moral zeitgeist is becoming so much more moral now that religion is declining, committing sins with quite such cheerful gusto? The idea of medieval people shaking with fear at the threats of hell, which the clergy thundered from pulpits relentlessly at them, is clearly a complete fantasy also. The devil in the morality plays was not a terrifying threat but a figure of fun. Chaucer’s pilgrims were hardly a crew of wretchedly miserable sinners utterly possessed by fear of hell as they shuffled on their knees towards Canterbury.
What about all those doom pictures then? It is hard to explain them to people who have lost all sense of allegory (allegory is almost as pejorative a word as myth in Dawkins’ vocabulary). They weren’t about the hell which was awaiting the congregations who witnessed them every Sunday, for the very churches in which they were painted were the vessels in which those same congregations would be saved. They were about the seven deadly sins. The Middle Ages had a vivid sense of the truth that, now we have lost all sense of allegory, Freud has enabled us to access with his discovery of unconscious repression. Peoples’ moral behaviour is not fully explained by their rational and conscious decisions. It is fuelled by powerful unconscious forces over which they have only fitful control. As in a Freudian analysis neuroses can be cured by being brought to the surface where consciousness can deal with them, so these dooms exposed the unconscious roots of immoral behaviour, except that they did it far more effectively (and cheaply) because they were so vivid and, through the fear of hell that they aroused, instilled a proper respect for the immense powers of these unconscious drives. Dante’s Divine Comedy is just such an allegory. On one level it is a journey into the depths of himself. They weren’t so much about punishment for evil, for God forgives the evil deeds of the penitent and where better than in church, but about escaping the power of evil in order to do good.
Mankind’s biggest moral problem is suppression of these unconscious forces which in themselves are morally neutral but when they dominate conscious behaviour become viciously immoral. People do evil things, especially really evil things, not so much because they are criminal as that they are deluded. Despite the sophistication of their allegorical techniques for dealing with this problem, it is so deep seated the medieval people certainly did not entirely succeed. But their failure was almost nothing compared with the heights that moral delusion has reached now that allegory has declined. Think how in Britain people were so proud of the British Empire which they saw as a civilizing force that had brought hospitals, bridges, education and law and order to backward peoples. All this was true. Effective instruments of self-delusion always are. But we simply suppressed our knowledge of the great evils that the British perpetrated in order to maintain that same empire (Freud where wert thou?). Only Auschwitz can vie with the horrors of the West Indian slave trade as a historic crime. A million and a half people were allowed to starve to death in Ireland, in a land from which food was being exported in abundance as they did it. What a dire warning it was of what happens if you are feckless and lazy and live on potatoes. That they were living on potatoes because the British had driven them out from the more fertile east was rarely mentioned. The British destroyed the highly skilled textile industry of India by military force, in the name of free trade would you believe, in order to force the Indians to buy machined Lancashire cotton. The efforts of the Chinese governments to prevent their people falling prey to opium addiction were frustrated by British gunboats, a crime which has now come back to haunt us. In the nineteen fifties many thousands of Kikuyu were tortured and castrated during the Mau Mau emergency in British concentration camps. Back home we were blissfully unaware of it. But how could we have been? Barbara Castle was complaining about the barbarities in parliament the whole time.
This capacity for self-delusion that is so native to the human being has reached new and even dizzier heights now we are faced with climate change. Here we have the great majority of scientists issuing the gravest warnings that the future of our children will be truly terrible on a global scale, if we don’t stop using fossil fuels. You would have thought people would have been deeply alarmed. But not a bit of it. They are not bad people. They are simply paying no attention. ‘I shouldn’t worry too much. My granny said the weather was funny when she was a kid’. How are we to explain this extraordinary moral torpor? It’s your childrens’ future for goodness sake. Could it be that, unbeknownst to us, our deep seated desire for the material things that fossil fuels have brought has risen up from the depths of the soul, overwhelming the rational response to these dire warnings that any reasonable person would surely give? Maybe a few of those doom paintings about avarice wouldn’t come too amiss. How extraordinarily like the medieval portrayals of fiery hells the pictures that scientists are painting of what a future earth could be are. Still, at least it will be a real hell. Not one of those silly medieval fantasies.