The new Leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, 56 year-old Edwin Poots, in being elected to the post, has overcome what for others might have been an insurmountable obstruction in his campaign. He was saved, though, by a bizarre but generally held view that a personal belief, however irrational, however absurd in the light of clearly identifiable and undeniable facts, is entirely acceptable provided that it is a core element of a recognised religious creed, particularly (in the West) if that belief is Christian.
As a cradle Catholic who hesitantly remains, at least culturally, a follower of Rome, I am familiar with the concept of unchallengeable dogma. Having since childhood been asked to believe many highly implausible, not to say downright unbelievable tenets of the Catholic faith, I have gradually come to understand that the insistence on these beliefs developed over centuries as part of a system of control over the church’s adherents, enforcing obedience by threatening members with expulsion if they refused to believe these things without reservation. As a child I was told many strange and potentially damaging things. In the catechism of the time, a penile erection was described with outstanding euphemism as ‘an irregular motion of the flesh’ from which pleasure was not to be derived under any circumstances. We were also told that if we masturbated and died before confessing the sin, we would go to hell.
The Old Testament includes hundreds of stories of fire-breathing, baby-eating devils, six-winged angels singing praises around God’s throne, and the lake of blazing sulphur that will greet unrepentant sinners after they have passed on (including teenage boys guilty of unconfessed masturbation).
A large part of the Old Testament contains elaborate fantastical stories to describe the relationship between God and homo sapiens, and our origins, which are presented as fact. The New Testament consists of a series of geographical and historical inconsistencies and easily controvertible propositions whose mystical, nonhistorical elements it is impossible for an enlightened and more sophisticated populace to rationally accept. One of the primary reasons for the almost total abandonment of Christian churches is the inability of potential congregations to take at face value any of these elaborate and implausible myths. There is a view that it is possible to embrace these myths, without giving them serious credence, for their metaphoric value in trying to explain the complex relationship between homo sapiens and the numinous aspects of existence. Besides, despite the unreliability of the early accounts of Jesus’ life it seems certain that he was a real historical figure, an extraordinarily charismatic social reformer and teacher — in effect the world’s proto-socialist — who proclaimed the revolutionary concept that in the greater scheme, kings, personal wealth and the prevailing human social order were irrelevant. He proposed these ideas without compromise or concession to the prejudices of the majority — not unlike the more recent pronouncements of Jeremy Corbyn. (Like Jeremy Corbyn, he was reviled and spat upon for his teachings by those most likely to lose out from his proposals; unlike Jeremy Corbyn, though, Jesus went on to amass a vast following of people who still find guidance in the story of his life and his principles.)
The beliefs sustained by Christian followers of Jesus have been around for two millennia. Although the number of Christians is still high, it has fallen significantly in the last fifty years. Now, when the majority in the Western world are not prepared to commit to non-corporeal belief systems, they have nevertheless grown up being taught at least to respect others’ religious beliefs, and public figures are generally not called out over the spiritual beliefs that they profess.
In his election campaign if Mr Poots had stated that he believed that the moon was made of gorgonzola and that he would not in any circumstances be moved on this belief, he would not have made it past the first hustings. But Mr Poots has declared a belief considerably more disturbing and crass, for he is a Young Earth creationist who thinks the planet is 6,000 years old and was created by God over seven days, exactly as described in the Book of Genesis.
To believe such a proposition utterly and sincerely requires a formidable capacity to deny reality, which is in itself a basis for alarming and potentially catastrophic bigotry. Despite this, like otherwise rational Republicans in the United States who are prepared to put up with Donald Trump’s extraordinary impossible claims (because they think that they will serve their political aspirations better by hanging on to his populist coat tails), Mr Poots’ supporters consider him to be a pragmatic, wily, even charismatic leader whose bizarre relationship with the truth in the matter of the Earth’s origins will not interfere with his talents as a political leader.
They should be aware, though, that history has shown that naked, unconfined bigotry is not a sound characteristic for long-term success in politics.