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Why ignorance is indeed a sin

12 June 2015

Violence is viscerally rooted in some versions of religion, says Paul Vallely

"I COUNT religion but a childish toy, And hold there is no sin but ignorance," the character of Machevill says at the start of The Jew of Malta. In the Royal Shakespeare Company's finely turned production of Christopher Marlowe's classic, the director, Justin Audibert, is so pleased with the lines that he has the English incarnation of Machiavelli say them twice, at the beginning and the end of his prologue.

Certainly, religion does not come very well out of Marlowe's portrait of 16th-century Malta, where arrogant and sanctimonious papish Catholics, infidel Mohammedans, and a perfidious Jew compete to out-nasty one another with a succession of eye-for-an-eyes. The Muslims emerge least worst, but it is a close run thing between the Christians and the Jew - although even an atheist such as Marlowe was not brave enough at a time of Tudor turmoil to include badly behaving Protestants - something he was latter to rectify in Doctor Faustus.

But is religion the cause or merely the symptom here? Tony Blair has recently reiterated the standard line that "It is not religion or faith per se that causes or foments conflict." Announcing his new job as chairman of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation (ECTR), he wrote last week identifying the problem rather as "the abuse of religion, which then becomes a mask behind which those bent on death and destruction all too often hide".

Mr Blair's new post provoked a certain amount of scorn and scoffing on social media. His culpability over the Iraq War was cited; so was his post-prime ministerial role as a Middle East peace envoy, which bore no apparent fruit and led to accusations that he was biased in favour of the Israelis - something that this new job with a body funded by a Jewish billionaire confirmed in the eyes of his critics.

Of course, it would be faulty logic to suggest that just because Mr Blair has been wrong on one issue - spectacularly so on Iraq - he must be wrong about everything else. But there are other reasons to wonder whether the ECTR's calls for tougher laws on extremism and racial and religious hatred are a good idea. Among its policies is a campaign to persuade European countries to pass laws to criminalise Holocaust denial.

There is no doubt that the law can reshape attitudes. Legislation on seatbelts and drink-driving has shown that. But what works with comparatively superficial social behaviour may not be the right approach to problems that seem more deeply engrained in our religions. Moreover, the law of unintended consequences applies: legislation to protect religion can become a tool of oppression, as blasphemy laws have shown throughout the world.

Religion may just be a badge in the promotion of intolerance. Certainly, more genocidal violence has sprung from nationalism than faith. But what Marlowe's play shows is how viscerally such violence is rooted. There may well be other sins than ignorance. But ignorance is surely a massive one.


The Jew of Malta is running in repertoire at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 8 September.



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