THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
Our dangerous zeitgeist
Robber Barons; then and now

Religion in today's Britain


At the O2 Arena last week, popular comedian Micky Flanagan got a roar of approval from most of his capacity audience for the following line;

"I am not religious ... because I AM NOT FUCKING MENTAL."

He went on to make them roll in the aisles (a dangerous pastime on the steep tiers at the O2) by conducting a conversation with an imaginary vicar about 'teabagging' his imaginary gay boyfriend. This to give his audience the comedic pleasure of picturing the discomfiture of the 'homophobic' clergyman. 

I am sure his audience members are more typical of current British public opinion than the Christians among my friends. Religion in general and the faith of our fathers in particular has become little more than a synonym for 'homophobia' in metropolitan circles. If most Londoners met their creator on Hampstead Heath (as an accountant does in one of my favourite jokes) they would not fall to their knees. They would look Him up and down contemptuously and say "Some people are gay, God. Get over it."

I have stated my own views on religion here before. They have not changed much, even after the shock of the late Mrs P.'s conversion to Catholicism. I hope I am no smug, dismissive, arrogant Dawkins-style atheist. I have religious friends. I like them, respect them and am careful not to deploy my weapons-grade argumentation to undermine their faith. When I see a friend in trouble, I envy them the confidence their faith gives them to try to help in the face of implacable fate. 

Every culture in history evolved at least one religion in the course of its development. The utility of religious belief in handling the central problem of being human is obvious. Voltaire said it best. Like most people, I am not so narcissistic or self-important as to worry about my own death. My passing will make no significant ripple in the cosmos and that's fine with me. But every time I lose someone I care about, I would love the comfort of religion. When I look back on some aspects of my life, I also understand the appeal of the Catholic rite of confession. Absolution. What's not to like?

Christianity, even if little-practised now in Britain, is an inseparable part of our culture. Even British atheists are clearly a- the Christian Theos. It informs who we are. Our art and literature are so steeped in it that they make little sense without a basic understanding of The Bible. I feel guilty when a Christian would and am impelled to similar good acts. I feel bad if I am not suitably grateful for the blessings in my life; ludicrously as I have no-one to thank for conferring them. I don't think a Christian neighbour would be able to identify me as an atheist without asking.

I am not in any way against religious belief. I simply don't have it.

At the suggestion of a friend I have been attending weekly viewings of Father Robert Barron's film series, "Catholicism". I asked the organisers if it was ok for an atheist to come along and explained that I wanted to understand what my late wife had signed up to. They have been welcoming and I rather fear becoming their pet heathen. I am certainly now the most prayed-for atheist in Chiswick. They are good, serious, kind people but they are even more hopelessly at odds with the zeitgeist of modern Britain than I am. Like so many in our weirdly fragmented society, they operate in their own social bubble and seem unaware of the rising hostility they face. Their naievety is touching and worrying. I feel as protective of them as they do of me.

The recently retired Chief Rabbi wrote an interesting article suggesting that atheists are failing in an implied obligation to offer an alternative moral structure.

I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other

Most atheists I know are quick to say that the religious have no monopoly on morality. Fair enough. There are many moral atheists. I hope I am one of them. But Rabbi Sacks is right that we offer no common moral basis for society. As the rubble of the old faiths is consigned to the landfill of history, I fear that without common values our behaviours can only be kept within safe bounds by state power. If men fear no gods, they must fear other men.

That's a sobering thought because, while we can mock the violence caused by religion (the conquistadores, the crusaders, the Inquisition, 'the Troubles', Islamic terrorism etc.) the state is an institution with a worse record. Having conceded control of so much of our lives to it, are we now ready to let it define our morals too?