Thursday, 12 November 2009

Can you have a religious phobia?

Listening to the news last night I heard that someone (I think it was the German nation) was being accused of Islamophobia. The word worried me. Could you really have a phobia about a religion?

According to my dictionary, a phobia is an 'extreme or irrational fear'. The sort of thing that has people cowering in the corner of a room, screaming, when they see a spider, or becoming dizzy and unstable when at a great height. Were they really claiming that the German nation reaction this way to a religion?

There are a number of responses to a religion that tend to get the 'phobic' label. There is hatred of a particular type of people, simply because of their belief. This is a despicable and sad response, but hardly a phobia. Then there is dislike of the religion itself. There is nothing wrong with this, unless you take it to extremes as Richard Dawkins does. It's perfectly reasonable to dislike a religion, just as much as you might dislike a political party.

Most subtle of all, there is statistical fear - this is wrong, but is understandable and as a similar error to buying tickets for the National Lottery and expecting to win. Just as 30 years ago the most likely people in London (say) to be bombers were Irish, now the most likely people in London to be bombers are Muslim. That's undeniable fact. However, in neither case is it a cause for fear when encountering a person from the relevant grouping, because that would be a misunderstanding of statistics. The vast majority of Irish people in London 30 years ago were good, ordinary people. Just a very few were terrorists. The same holds true for Muslims today. We are still much more likely to be killed in a road accident (or by flu) than by a terrorist.

However, statistical fear is an understandable fear, because human beings are inherently bad at statistics. We are programmed at a deep level not to get it. This is why we would be shocked if the lottery came up with the numbers 1,2,3,4,5,6 in that order, even though it's just as likely to come up as the sequence that won on Saturday. We can understand statistical fear, but it is impossible to make it go away - it's entirely rational, because it's part of the pattern recognition system that enables us to function in the world. It's just that we are seeing a pattern in this case that doesn't really exist.

In none of these cases do I see an example of a phobia. So would the media and politicians please stop using that word and come up with something better. Now, please.

Added later - thanks to Kenan Malik to pointing me to his excellent essay on Islamophobia and Islamophilia to expand this consideration.

Image from Wikipedia

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