Voltaire in the village

One of the most memorable things about growing up in our small Somerset village was the inculcation of respect for the values and beliefs of everyone, no matter how odd those beliefs might seem to those of us who took the rational and scientific perspective on life adopted by most English people since the time of the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment.

There were fundamentalist Christians in our village, they would come to our house to get haircuts from my mother.  They were Creationists whose understanding of the beginning of time was very different from that in our house, but at no time would the thought have occurred to mock them for their faith.

My father would not have tolerated the abuse of anyone, no matter how eccentric their views. A thought attributed by a biographer to the Eighteenth Century French writer Voltaire was one of his favourites, ‘I despise what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it’. (Voltaire almost certainly didn’t say it, but the facts shouldn’t spoil a good story).

The English toleration of almost anything, fruitcakes, zealots, weirdos and all, came out of the bloodiness of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.

By 1888 in England, there was a law that allowed those who professed no religious belief to hold public positions. A pluralist tradition developed, a tradition that depended on everyone tolerating everyone else.

Perhaps it was a form of political correctness, but it allowed the development of a society where there was freedom and tolerance. The only thing we would not tolerate was intolerance

Ireland’s political tradition has been very differently shaped, it has been characterized by a violent repression of religious traditions.

English rule brought centuries of discrimination against Roman Catholicism. The establishment of the new state in 1922 allowed a Protestant hegemony to continue in Northern Ireland and the rule of the Roman Catholic bishops to emerge in the new Republic.

The rejection of oppressive theological traditions led to bitter sectarianism in the North and to anti-clericalism in the Republic. There never seemed to develop the tradition of indifference that had grown up in England, an indifference that was indifferent to everything except intolerance.

The spirit of indifference rarely infused the discourse of those who burned effigies on Ulster bonfires and sadly now seems equally absent from those in the Republic who have developed a casual contempt for the Roman Catholic traditions.

Watching the Northern Ireland election results and the discussion that has followed, it seems that the challenge for the future will be to foster apathy!

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