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Lighting a Candle (Saturday Sound-off)

At our local supermarket check-out this morning one of my neighbours was in front of me in the queue. Shortly after I left I caught up with her and we walked together down the hill, chatting about the weather and recent developments in our small retirement community. When we reached the church she parted company with me saying that she was going to light a candle for a friend and went on to explain how very ill this person was.

As an atheist I regard the idea of lighting a candle in the belief that it might effect a cure or ease someone’s passage into the after-life as somewhat bizarre. But I would not publicly ridicule a person holding that belief or all followers of Roman Catholicism for that and other, to me, futile practices.

Like most Catholics, however, I do condemn some of the behaviours attributed to certain members of their faith in recent times.

Why am I telling you this? Because I am saddened by recent examples of antisemitism and Islamophobia in British political life.

Of course I condemn the heinous actions of some who claim to be followers of Islam. Be-headings, bombings and other terror related activities are evil. I also feel saddened by the way some in Islam treat their womenfolk. That does not mean I hold all followers of that faith in contempt nor to I have a problem with the way some choose to dress.

In the same fashion, I condemn some of the policies of the Israeli government. But I do not have contempt for individual Jews or for the way some Jewish men choose to dress.

In fact, I have a real problem with the whole concept of racism and religious hatred. I’m old enough to remember a time when it seemed to be taken for granted that people of obvious African ancestry were of lesser intelligence than white skinned people. To my shame I believed it for a while.

I now know that we are all the same under the skin. We are all equally capable of attaining the highest level of education and achievement. And we are all equally capable of being foolish and allowing ourselves to be duped by dangerous rhetoric.

For me the definition of racism is any suggestion that one ethnic group is superior, or inferior, to any other. That, of course, includes such notions as that of a “chosen people” or the belief that centuries of residence in a particular land gives an ethnic group the exclusive right to continue to reside there. When the then South African government tried, in the 1960s, to establish that principle, designating certain areas as ‘tribal homelands’, insisting that people of such ethnicity must have a special license, or ‘pass’, in order to travel to, and work in, other parts of South Africa, the majority of the rest of the world condemned the policy, and rightly so.

And yet, if I condemn the military occupation of certain parts of the Holy Land and the forced removal of those until recently occupying those lands in order to accommodate Jews, as I do, I am guilty of antisemitism. I refuse to be so labelled. As I made clear above, I do not associate all Jews with Israel and the unacceptable policies of it’s government. Just as, in the past, I did not condemn all white South Africans because of the policies of their government, only those who actively supported the policy.

It is all very complex and confusing but there is, for me, one over-riding fact in all of this: anthropologists tell us that homo-sapiens first appeared somewhere in the African continent. Since then our ancestors have migrated North, East and West. So, logically, the only ‘ancestral home’ for any and all of us is Africa.

DNA analysis of human remains from the past have shown that Europeans are the descendants of migrants and invaders over many centuries, suggesting that objections to recent arrivals from outside the continent are misplaced.

No-one should be ridiculed for his or her religious beliefs, however bizarre they might seem to you and me. Neither should anyone be prevented, solely because of his or her ethnicity, from living anywhere in the world he or she chooses.

If I was going to light a candle it would be for greater understanding of our shared humanity and less animosity towards those who look different from ourselves.

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