[LMB] Religion and one-up-manship

Peter Hews Peterhews at protonmail.com
Wed Jul 14 11:53:54 BST 2021

In recent years I've concluded that a powerful but largely unrecognised force in religion is one-up-manship - "I'm more devout than you." It explains a lot that seems otherwise bizarre.

I first thought of this when I was living in the Asian quarter of Leeds. There was a neighbour's boy who used to come round for help mending his bike, and one day when we were working in the garden he kept turning aside to spit. Being a polite lad, he was embarrassed and explained that he had to because it was Ramadan.

I was very familiar with the fast, of course, but I'd never before heard of someone who believed they shouldn't even swallow their own spit before sundown. I could only account for it by seeing it as wanting to be even more devout than the next man, and it made me see how such one-up-manship could turn reasonable and defensible customs into madness.

There are good arguments for having a divinely ordered day of rest - even today we all know people who would work themselves into a crash if they weren't ordered to take a break. But there's a difference of sanity between "On the Sabbath thou shalt rest," and "On the Sabbath thou shalt freeze rather than light a fire." Abstaining from pork or beef may have logical cultural reasons, but there's no logic in having a list so detailed that it tells you if you're allowed to eat owls. The progression from the many Middle Eastern religions that require a woman to cover her dreadfully tempting hair, to the ones that require her to hide even her eyes, is one-up-manship in action again.

Not a solution to extremism, but it's nice to have an explanation.

Peter Hews

Oh better far to live and die under the brave black flag I fly,
Than play a sanctimonious part with a pirate head and a pirate heart.

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