09/15/2010 11:52 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

You Can't Argue with Religious Zeal

On Saturday, I ate tapas at the site of the former headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition. It was in Palma's main square, Placa Major, and the tapas were pretty unpleasant, but not, one assumes, as unpleasant as some of the experiences that preceded them in centuries past. When I got back to London, after two weeks in a sun-drenched bubble with no news, internet, telly or Miliballs, not much seemed to have changed. More than 500 years after the Pope suggested to another happy ruling couple that they set up a kind of Star Chamber to do with cuts (fingers, toe-nails, bowels etc), an awful lot of people seemed to be awfully busy protecting God's honour.

First, a nutcase in Godknowswhereville had said he was going to take a book he'd never read and set it alight, and then maybe not tidy his bedroom, and then maybe not eat his tea (though that would be surprising for an American) because he wanted to teach some pesky foreigners a thing or two, although what exactly he wanted to teach them wasn't quite clear, and the President of the world's only remaining superpower actually made a statement about it, and so did the Secretary of State, and so did every Tom, Dick and Ali in every newspaper all over the world, and then a lot of people who didn't seem to be terribly good at group efforts when it came to helping their brothers and sisters in Pakistan took to the streets and started doing what they are very, very good at: threatening violence.

Then, a lot of people who would probably not think that raping children was a great idea, particularly if those children were vulnerable and in your care and trusted you, and whose families are not of a size to indicate the forgoing of all contraception all the time, have been rushing to the defence of a man who, for many years, sought to cover up the rape of children in the institution over which he now presides, and who believes that it's better to spread a deadly disease than use a condom. A man, by the way, who has refused to meet some of the people whose lives have been wrecked by the sexual appetites of his colleagues during his visit to this country, which starts tomorrow and will, at a time when many people are about to lose their jobs, cost the taxpayer millions.

Meanwhile, a man who has said that religion was always more important to him than politics, but who, if you ask me, seems quite keen on Mammon too, and who is now (metaphorically speaking, since they probably pay you these days) a fully paid-up member of the institution run by the man who has condoned rape, has been slagging off his colleagues and justifying his decision to start a war which may have resulted in the death of up to a million people, and certainly wrecked the infrastructure of a nation, and clearly done more to fuel radical Islam around the world than anything since the occupation of Palestine by a bellicose nation called Israel.

And a scientist, whose job it is to observe the behaviour of waves and particles, and not of angels on pin-heads, a scientist who has never claimed any kind of religious belief, published a book about quantum mechanics and relativity and failed to relate them to anyone called Jesus, Mary or Mohamed, and said that "it is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going" and, in a predominantly secular country, this triggered waves of outrage and was deemed front page news.

And, while it's true that airports, and in particular Ryanair flights, and in particular worrying that the wheels on your hand luggage technically speaking make it 2cm wider than is officially allowed, and so might attract a penalty, or maybe thumb-screws, for which you will, no doubt, be charged, tend to provoke existential crises, and thoughts of a new, if short, career as a suicide bomber, this all feels very, very, very depressing.

The poor, as Jesus said in a book that has rather more common sense than The Journey, sorry, A Journey, will be with us always and so, it seems, will religious zealots. Many leftist liberal commentators seem to think that they're like middle-class toddlers, who can be gently persuaded, with reason, calm and the assertion that it's just not very nice to hit little Gracie, to see the error of their ways. They think, to borrow one of Jesus's favourite metaphors, that they're living in the darkness and just waiting for the light. The key is reason and education. Otherwise known as enlightenment.

Well, I don't know what kind of school the Monty Pythonesque pastor went to, but I do know that he lives in the most developed country in the world, albeit a country that seems, like him, to be a bit confused about whether it wants religious freedom or mass Bible bashery. I know that Joseph Ratzinger grew up, and was educated, in one of the most advanced countries in the Western world, albeit one which decided, when he was still a child, to embark on the mass slaughter of an entire race. And I know that Britain's current top-selling author went not to one of the faith schools he so enthusiastically funded but to one of Britain's best public schools and top universities.

And I went to a perfectly pleasant primary school on the estate where I grew up, where I did lots of projects on the Romans and the Tudors, and then to a perfectly competent grammar school which turned comprehensive, and then to a "good" university, and then another "good" university, and had parents who were intelligent, well educated, church-going Anglicans who would rather have been burnt at the stake than talk about religion, and none of this stopped me from going to a youth club attached to a Baptist church and becoming a born-again nutter who believed (or tried to) that most of the world's population was going to hell.

Thank the Lord, Allah, Vishnu or the Pope, I don't now, but the people I knew then - kind, well-meaning, and not all stupid - still do. The horrible truth is this: anyone can believe anything. Leading lawyers married to prime ministers can embrace Feng Shui and Mayan rebirthing ceremonies with as much enthusiasm as they bring to men in frocks telling them that their wrongdoing can be wiped away with a string of rattled prayers. Many men in the Middle East, and growing numbers in this country, can claim, with a straight face, that inequities in this life will be balanced at a later stage with more virgins than could satisfy a football team. Some people can even believe that England might one day win the World Cup.

Let's, by all means, do what we can to keep the institutions of our state as secular as possible. Let's abolish faith schools. Let's clamp down on all religious behaviour that breaks the law, or the spirit of the law, of this country. And let's do our damndest to ensure that religion is, as far as possible, relegated to the private and not the public arena. But even for those of us lucky enough to live in a country unlikely to be invaded, or destroyed by floods or earthquakes, life is baffling enough. Death is baffling enough. So is the human heart. If we need some nonsense to get us through, then so be it. But let's, please let's, do our best to bear in mind, and foster, one principle above all others: primum non nocere. The Pope could translate for us, and indeed learn from it: first, do no harm.