Poor old Dawkins. Poor old Hitchens. You know who I mean: the writers who make a mint with those blockbusters proclaiming that God is dead. They yearn for a human race composed entirely of scientific rationalists, and look at what they get.
You can mock the tenets of Christianity, you can drive people out of churches, you can claim that religion is bunk. But you will never eradicate the superstition in the human heart. Even in this supposedly godless age, we have a deep need to categorise things as holy or unholy; and if you want to understand how the search for holiness still drives our simple souls, look at the magnificent photo that appeared in the paper the other day.
A bunch of global celebrities has converged at a dinner party in Pretoria, way back in 1997. There is Mia Farrow, mother of 15, ex-wife of Woody Allen and André Previn, an actress most famous for giving birth to the devil in Rosemary’s Baby. There is Pakistani cricket legend and statesman Imran Khan and his gorgeous wife Jemima, top Chinese actor Tony Leung, and the sensationally gifted record producer Quincy Jones and his wife.
These are all educated people. So why in heaven’s name were they sitting down to dinner with Mr Charles Taylor, a blood-soaked Liberian warlord? The only guest with any conceivable excuse was diamond-toting supermodel Naomi Campbell, who has since plausibly claimed that she did not know where Liberia was. The rest of them must surely have known Mr Taylor’s background, even if they did not know that he had just come to power with the slogan: “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I still vote for him.” Indeed, if some of the allegations now being levelled against him in the Hague are correct, Naomi and co were lucky not to be eaten by their dinner companion.
Not only does Mr Taylor stand accused of being co-responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of west Africans, sometimes ordering his supporters to hack off the hands and feet of adults, children and even babies. He allegedly had a pregnant woman buried alive in the sand, and when a man betrayed him he is said to have commanded him to be ritually sacrificed in order that he might eat his intestines. So, to repeat the question: what possessed these apparently sentient A-list celebs to break bread – and then pose for a commemorative photo – with this allegedly gut-guzzling maniac?
Why did they risk that most precious thing, their reputations? The answer, of course, is that the man at the centre of the group portrait, and their host, was Mr Nelson Mandela, and Mr Mandela is by common consent just about the best, kindest and most gracious man on the planet. It is the goal of every celebrity to have his or her photo taken with Mr Mandela. He beats Obama. He beats the Queen. He knocks the Pope into a cocked hat.
With his radiant smile and his transfiguring presence, he washes away the sins of all those who come near him. It didn’t matter to the slebs that they were in the presence of an allegedly limb-chopping warlord. They were literally in the presence of a saint – or the closest the modern world has come to reproducing this ancient concept. They left reason behind and gravitated towards holiness, the sense of spiritual goodness our species still craves. And of course the reverse phenomenon is everywhere.
When that undersea explosion took place off the coast of Louisiana, I remember coming into the office as everyone was watching the TV images of the oil gushing unchecked into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Gosh, I said, it was certainly terrible. But the thing about oil was that it was a naturally occurring substance and after a while the sea would help to break it down. Things would eventually get better, I prophesied.
At which I received a volcanic rebuke. “How can you say that?” fumed my secretary, Batley-born Ann Sindall. “How can you possibly minimise a disaster like this?” I am not minimising it, I said, suddenly feeling a bit like former BP boss Tony Hayward in front of the world’s media. I am just saying that in the end nature will recover, as with previous oil spills. But by then you will appreciate that the argument was more or less lost, and I slunk into my office under heavy fire.
So I took a lively interest last week in the headline of one respectably eco-conscious newspaper, above a report explaining that the spill was being dispersed. “How can five million barrels of oil simply disappear?” it asked indignantly, as though some sort of fraud had taken place. The paper than left it to Simon Boxall, an oceanographer at Southampton University, to answer its own question.
“We’ve been saying all along that this wasn’t the catastrophe that the politicians and the media would have us believe,” he said. “It’s not the world’s worst environmental disaster and not even the worst oil spill.” So speaks the voice of sweet scientific reason – the reason the scientists vainly deploy to the tabloid journalists who ring them up and rage about cloned cows.
What has happened to the 96 progeny of Dundee Paratrooper, the cloned bull from Scotland? No one knows, but it seems likely that many of them have already been killed and eaten. Will any of these clone-fed people suffer any ill-effects? Will they start mooing or turning into minotaurs? Of course not. As the American Food and Drug Administration has already determined, there is absolutely no metabolic difference between a cloned cow and any other cow. But people feel there is something profane, something “disturbing” in the idea of eating a clone, just as there is something extra awful about an oil spill, a sense of moral pollution that goes beyond the damage to the environment.
It is irrational, but then we will never be a wholly rational species. It is deep in human nature to seek the holy and to shun the unholy, even when no such unholiness really exists. Naturam expellas furca, as I always say, tamen usque recurret. (You can try and drive out nature, but inborn character is ineradicable)
You can read the article in full here in The Daily Telegraph