Should religious bigots have rights over us all?

I'M beginning to question my long-held view of religion.

Aidan Semmens

I'M beginning to question my long-held view of religion.

I have long believed in freedom of belief, the right of others to their faith however weird or wacky it might seem to me. In short, in religious tolerance.

Trouble is, “religious tolerance” is starting to sound like an oxymoron, like “pale black” or “military intelligence”.

I'm growing very tired of religious groups' claims to special privileges merely on the grounds of their superstition.

Like the supposed “right” of Muslims to wear the burkha (or, rather, the right of Muslim men to impose it on their women).

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The “right” of Jehovah's Witnesses to deny their children access to modern medical techniques such as blood transfusions.

The “right” of Christian fundamentalists to insist that their insane beliefs be given equivalent status in schools to genuine science.

And I'm sick and tired of the constant demands for “tolerance” when what they really mean is tolerance of their intolerance towards others.

Some Muslim extremists want to impose Shari'a law - to restrict everyone's basic human rights to fit their particular religious outlook.

The Taleban want to re-impose their draconian, violent, inhumane rule in Afghanistan on the pretext of religion.

And the Pope wants Catholics to rebel against British equality legislation.

In other words, to insist on their “right” to deny basic human rights to others. To demand tolerance of their rampant intolerance.

It's not that the Pope's against equality. Just that he wants good, line-toeing Catholics to be more equal than others.

Many religious people talk as if morality was their exclusive property. It isn't.

In fact, more often than not “religious morality” is simply an excuse to impose an arbitrary code on others.

A code based at best on out-dated principles. More commonly on the interpretation of those principles by contemporary (male) leaders who like to claim tradition (and God's backing) for their own particular prejudices.

When people talk, as the Pope has this week, about “natural law”, it's always their own prejudices they really mean.

He and other religious leaders wish to deny rights to others on grounds of gender or sexual orientation.

This isn't morality. It's bigotry. Baseless intolerance that should not be tolerated.

One Christian I heard supporting the Pope's view put it very neatly.

“Trendy modern tinkering,” he said, “shouldn't be allowed to change a 2,000-year-old tradition of natural justice.”

Quite right.

Crucifixion should be brought back right away. And stoning for Christians, of course.

I STOOD for an hour this week staring out of the window at the garden.

I really should do it more often, and not just wait for the RSPB to tell me the Big Garden Birdwatch has come round again.

I love to see the birds come and go, to enjoy their beautiful and varied shapes and colours, observe their inter-actions. If you can't appreciate the variety and otherness of life in such ways, you aren't really fully alive.

And of course the big watch, in which hundreds of thousands of people take part every year, provides the RSPB with invaluable data on the ups and downs of bird populations.

This year they were concerned to see how garden birds had coped with the harsh winter weather of December and January.

And I'm afraid the evidence of my notes suggests they have taken a severe hit.

In past years I've registered lively flocks of goldfinches and greenfinches. I haven't seen any of either species this year - not just in the designated hour, but at all.

No coal-tits either, and though I ticked off great tits, blue-tits and long-tailed tits, the numbers were well down. As were those of dunnocks (just one this year) and chaffinches (three).

Most winters, our stock of fallen apples attracts the occasional woodpecker, and blackbirds in their dozens. I haven't seen or heard a single woodpecker this year, and only three or four blackbirds at a time.

There was one joy for me in all the gloom, though.

Recent research suggests the blackcap has been evolving rapidly to take fuller advantage of British garden conditions, including feeders. My observation may provide further evidence of this.

Each year a pair of blackcaps have nested in a tree just outside our garden. This week, for the first time ever, I saw not just one but a pair together. And I didn't just spot them briefly, either, but was able to watch them coming and going busily throughout the hour.

Oddly, both were male. I wonder what the Pope would make of that. Natural law indeed.

POOR old Prince Harry fell off his horse week. Ouch.

He was playing polo in Barbados “in aid of poor African children”. Some folk are all heart.

Pity those poor African kids will probably never know how much he put himself on the line for them.