March 17, 2009

March 17: Speaking up for snakes

Today is a traditional day to honor the contributions of Ireland – and surely, they are many.  I salute the many Irish writers who have deeply influenced my thinking, among them:

  • John Banville
  • John Bell
  • George Berkeley
  • Samuel Beckett
  • George Boole
  • Robert Boyle
  • William Congreve
  • Oliver Goldsmith
  • William Hamilton
  • Seamus Heaney (my friend!)
  • Chaim Herzog
  • James Joyce
  • Iris Murdoch
  • Edna O’Brien
  • George Bernard Shaw
  • Laurence Sterne
  • Bram Stoker
  • Jonathan Swift
  • John Millington Synge
  • John Toland
  • Oscar Wilde
  • William Butler Yeats

But I want to speak up for snakes.  I disagree with Patrick’s decision to drive them out of Ireland.  Snakes are a marvelous creature of God, and not to be treated as something to be discarded or harmed.

Now of course, there is the historical fact that there were no snakes in Ireland – so the story of Patrick is really a story of religious intolerance:  perhaps Patrick launched a mission of ethnic cleansing against the Druids of the time, who often used snake symbols.

And if this is the case, then we must admit that in many quarters of America, we are not much further advanced than Patrick.  Those who launch invective against free-thinkers are miniature Patricks, spreading a message of intolerance.  I am thinking in particular of a set of messages urging individuals to launch a jihad against Unitarians (which in this case is broadly interpreted – really it is a message of intolerance against free thinkers). 

The first use of “free thinker” was, according to some accounts used by the Irish philospher George Berkeley to describe the Irish philosopher John Toland, who was, in fact, what we might call a Unitarian – in his dramatic and important works Christianity Not Mysterious and Letter to Serena

So, on this marvelous anniversary, I side with the snakes, the free thinkers, the great Irish intellectuals, and the Irish people.  And may our modern intolerant Patricks be enlightened.

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