Culturally agnostic

It is census time in the UK, which includes a question about your religion. So I ticked the box for ‘no religion’; but my father ticked the one for ‘Christian’, despite the fact that he is certainly not a member of any church, doesn’t go to church except for weddings, funerals and the occasional carol service, and is not, as far as I can tell, a believer.

But, you know, he went to a Christian school, and he was even confirmed into the Church of England (by the archbishop of Canterbury, as it happens). Which suggests there was a period in his life when he regarded himself as Christian. So I guess it makes sense if he regards himself as culturally Christian — whatever that means.

And I do see the value of religions as cultural identities — I can see why Jewish atheists might still want to affirm their Jewishness and maintain the rituals. Or as I’m told people used to ask in Northern Ireland, ‘but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?’

But as for me… I’m culturally more Christian than I am, say, Hindu — what religious education I had was mainly Christian in its focus, and I certainly know more about the culture and theology of Christianity than other religions. And at Christmas we have a tree, and presents, and a roast turkey. But those are just part of the ambient culture of Britain. Doctor Who plays a bigger part in my Christmas than Jesus. I’ve never thought of myself as Christian, so I don’t think of myself as a lapsed Christian, or a Christian atheist — if anything I’m a lapsed agnostic, since agnosticism seemed to be the fallback position amongst my peer group as a child.

The census can’t deal with such nuances, of course. Which is a pity, because that’s the kind of thing that seems interesting. We know that, because of people like my father, the census always significantly overstates the religiosity of the population:

When asked the census question ‘What is your religion?’, 61% of people in England and Wales ticked a religious box (53.48% Christian and 7.22% other) while 39% ticked ‘No religion’.

But when asked ‘Are you religious?’ only 29% of the same people said ‘Yes’ while 65% said ‘No’, meaning over half of those whom the census would count as having a religion said they were not religious.

Even more revealingly, less than half (48%) of those who ticked ‘Christian’ said they believed that Jesus Christ was a real person who died and came back to life and was the son of God.

The devoutly religious and the firmly atheist are straightforward enough; I’m curious about the shades of grey, the people who say their religion is Christian but that they are not religious. Are they mainly people who were brought up religious but don’t go to church any more? Are they defining themselves as Christian as a way of emphasising that they’re not Jewish or Muslim or whatever? Is it a generational thing? Do their children identify themselves as Christian? Perhaps ‘non-religious Christian’ can be a self-sustaining identity in its own right, comparable to secular Jewishness.

And the other side of that question is the people who tick ‘no religion’: are they mainly people who believe there is no god, or think there is no god, or can’t decide? Or are they just as likely to be people who have some kind of belief system of their own — something which they don’t think of as a religion but is not really non-belief either?

Anyway. I seem to have wandered off whatever point it was I was originally planning to make. Never mind.

» Ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, by John Sell Cotman.


Gay marriage through the eye of a needle

Oh, for fuck’s sake. Someone is blaming the recent bird deaths on ‘the fact that America is violating God’s prohibition on homosexuality with support for gay marriage and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’

This is annoying on so many levels, but the particular one which is bothering me today is this. I’m no biblical scholar, but I do know that Jesus said absolutely nothing about homosexuality. I don’t remember him saying much about sex at all, in fact.

On the other hand he did say quite a lot about money. Most memorably, of course, he said:

And moreover I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

But I don’t remember any of these bible-wielding nutters ever standing up after an earthquake, or a flood, or a load of dead blackbirds, and pointing the finger at Goldman Sachs, or Bank of America, or CitiGroup, or BP, or Exxon Mobil, or for that matter Apple or Google or Wal-Mart. Nope, it’s always the gays, the atheists, the liberals.

Admittedly, it would be equally nutty to blame natural disasters on Wall Street. But at least it would provide a bit of variety.


A rising tide of whatever

I’ve noticed a tendency recently for religious commentators to refer to ‘secularism’ as a force in British society. There was even someone on the radio who, discussing the Pope’s upcoming visit to Britain, referred to ‘a rising tide of secularism’. But I think that’s completely wrongheaded. We don’t have a rising tide of secularism: we have an ebbing tide of religion.

Certainly there’s not much political momentum behind secularism in the specific sense of the separation of church and state. Thanks to the tangled history of the British constitution, there’s a lot of scope for reform in this area. Off the top of my head, I’d want to get rid of: the monarch’s position as head of the Church of England, the bishops’ seats in the House of Lords, the Prime Minister’s role in appointing bishops, the legal requirement that schools have regular acts of ‘collective worship’ which are ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’, and the government funding of faith schools. Not to mention the ridiculous fact that members of the royal family are specifically barred from marrying catholics. But none of those are exactly hot political topics. The only one likely to get much political traction is faith schools; but it’s schools which are the fiercely contested issue, not religion.

But it’s broader than that: I don’t think secularism in Britain deserves to be called an ‘ism’. It’s not a system of thought or an organised political movement; it’s just a whole lot of people not going to church.*

Mind you, I don’t think it needs to be an organised anti-religious movement; a widespread lack of interest is probably enough. Everything else follows from there. When you have enough people who have simply never had religion as an important part of their lives — people who might, if pressed, claim to believe in some sort of higher power, but have never attended a church service by choice unless it’s a wedding or a funeral — well, the authority is gone. Social authority is like paper money, or fairies: it only works when everyone believes in it. If people have no emotional attachment to the idea of religion, they start judging religious beliefs by the same standard as other beliefs, and religious organisations by the same standards as other organisations.

At its root I don’t think that the hostile reaction to the Pope’s visit is based on anti-religious sentiment, although that is clearly present for some people.† I think it’s more that the absence of religious feeling means people approach him in a different way. I think a few decades ago, many people who were offended by catholic teachings on contraception and homosexuality, and even the child abuse cover-ups, would still have been less direct in their criticisms, because of who he is and what he represents. But now, it’s more like he’s a visiting politician with a bad human rights record… which, among other things, he is.

* Or at least, organised secularism does exist in Britain — you can follow the British Humanist Association on Twitter, ffs — but the BHA has existed under one name or another since 1896, and I’m sure they’d be honest enough to admit that their activities come a long way down the list of reasons for falling church attendance.

† And read this article by Padraig Reidy (formerly an editor at New Humanist magazine), who sees it as part of the long British history of anti-Catholicism.


The Church of the Long Now

The Clock of the Long Now is a very interesting book about the idea of building

a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.

This is not just an interesting engineering project. The idea is that the clock could act as a symbol of the ‘long now’: that is, a way of looking at the world which sees us within the long context of history.

Because ‘now’ means different things is different contexts: ‘I’m hungry now’; ‘tartan skirts are fashionable now’; ‘The United States is now the world’s only superpower’; ‘India is now moving northward into Asia, forming the Himalayas’.

The Long Now Foundation is actually building this clock; it’s not just a thought experiment. The idea is to promote long-term thinking: the kind of long term planning and policy making that might help to prepare for the risk of a hurricane hitting New Orleans, or to mitigate the economic impacts of an ageing population. Or, of course, try to minimise global warming.

These kinds of problems do not lend themselves to the five-year cycles of democratic politics, let alone to the ever-shorter cycles of 24 hour news media.

I remember it as a thought-provoking book, although I think I left my copy in Japan*. I don’t know whether it is really possible to make people take very long term planning seriously, for psychological as well as pragmatic reasons. But it’s an interesting idea.

I’ve been thinking about the Long Now recently because of a particular current news story. If there is any human institution that lends itself to Long Now thinking, it is the Catholic church. Their holy book is 2000 years old, and they still refer back to theologians like Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, from 700 and 1600 years ago respectively. I recently went round the V&A’s newly refurbished Medieval and Renaissance galleries, and they are a reminder that the church was a wealthy and powerful organisation before the Norman Conquest. It is nowhere near as wealthy or powerful now, in relative terms, as it was back in the middle ages; but it’s not doing badly.

Perhaps that’s why their PR in response to child abuse stories has seemed so woefully inept: when you operate over a timescale of centuries, a scathing article in the New York Times doesn’t seem like such a big deal. An organisation which has survived the Great Schism, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, not to mention the crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and a whole load of religious wars, is not going to throw around the word ‘crisis’ lightly.

And strategically speaking, they’re probably right: Benedict XVI is the 265th pope. Does anyone really think there won’t be a 266th? And by the time we get to 269 or 270, these scandals will be very old news indeed.

It’s not necessarily a morally bankrupt attitude; it’s not the same as ignoring the problem and waiting for it to go away. It might be nice to see them reaching out to the victims a little better and show a bit more public remorse, but the most important thing is to ensure that those kind of cover-ups don’t happen in future, and they say they have reformed the system to prevent it happening again.

I find it fascinating, looking at the world in this way. For example, I think it is an important principle of human rights and human dignity that women should be treated as full human beings with all the same rights and responsibilities as men. So if I was pope — an odd thought, admittedly — I would allow women to be priests. But from the long view of the Catholic church, with 20 centuries of institutional and theological tradition to draw on, the women’s rights movement could turn out to be a passing phase. Hell, there aren’t many countries where women have even had the vote for one century.†

And if I was pope, I’d allow gay marriage, contraception, and abortion. But I don’t expect the church to agree with me any time soon. And even though I disagree with everything they believe, from the existence of God downwards, there is something deeply intriguing about that kind of institutional continuity. You can see why some people find it seductive.

The Catholic church may be old-fashioned, but it has been old-fashioned for hundreds of years now; entire empires have risen and fallen while the church trundled on, being old-fashioned. It may be ludicrously archaic that important church documents are still issued in Latin, but the church was communicating in Latin before the English language even existed, and the church is still here. They are hardly going to be stung by the accusation that they’re not keeping up with the times.

* if only I’d had the long-term perspective to realise I would want to write a blog post about it several years later…

† In chronological order: The Pitcairn Islands, The Isle of Man, The Cook Islands, New Zealand, Australia, and Finland. According to Wikipedia.

» From top to bottom, the images are: the first prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, a C9th-10th crucifix reliquary from the V&A, and Titian’s portrait of Poe Paul III.

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