Sadly I have had considerable experience of religious people down the years, and I can broadly group them in three sections:
1. The ‘learned it by rote’ brigade. Brought up with it, went to school with it. It’s second nature and not something you question or rave about. It’s just there. On the surface this group are fairly harmless. Many will refer to themselves as being ‘lapsed’. Underneath they’re deeply tribalist and feel that any attack on their faith is a personal attack on them. Whether or not they are regular attenders at mass, church or mosque, they remain indelibly stamped with their tribal marking.
2. The ‘late convert’ brigade. These people have generally had little or no experience of religion in their formative years, but ‘discover’ religious faith later in life through marriage, peer group or a life-changing event. They tend to over-compensate for their ‘former life’ by seeking to convert everyone in sight to their exciting new findings. This group tends to be more suggestible to extreme ideas.
3. The complete fanatic. Driven by an insatiable urge to ‘live’ their faith, these people are often relatively normal on first meeting, but tend to be obsessive to the point of mania in matters of religion. They refuse to acknowledge any other viewpoint, see their holy book as being infallible and impose their particular ‘moral code’ on their immediate family and anyone else within their sphere of influence. In my opinion, they represent the ultimate, perhaps logical conclusion of that strange phenomenon called religious belief.
Whether all religious people are ‘crazy’ is a highly debatable point. Having had regular experience of an individual with acute paranoid schziophrenia, I was struck by the similarities of the more bizarre psychological aspects of their condition with the unquestioning spiritual ideas of the religious. Obviously this is itself proves nothing, but several scientific studies have suggested that religious experiences can be induced by manipulating various parts of the brain, as indeed of course can mind-altering drugs.
None of this is intended to suggest that all religious people are ‘crazy’, but it is rather puzzling that ‘miracles’, prophets and intense religious experiences such as documented visions have almost entirely ceased since the early centuries AD. It must be remembered that a vivid dream in biblical times could be interpreted as a vision from God, a natural phenomenon such as a flood or earthquake was considered to be aimed at ‘sinful’ mankind rather than being a random occurence and that organised religion was a highly effective tool in controlling an often lawless and volatile population with promise of cake tomorrow for good behaviour today.
Rather like alcohol, religious belief is relatively harmless and can even be beneficial in small doses. However, when it begins to seep into government, schools and hospitals and forms itself into a world-view, as in violent Islam or fundamentalist Christianity, it becomes a malevolence that is closed to reason.
In my view, it is the duty of government to ensure that all religious belief is kept well away from the statute book, and that men, women and sexual minorities are given equal standing in all matters. Children should be allowed to be children, and the classroom is not the place for dispensing one-sided religious dogma. If the chosen ‘faith’ of the parents is really as strong as their church leaders would contend, there is nothing to be lost in providing all children with a well-rounded secular education and allowing them to experience religious ‘instruction’ outside school premises.