Sunday, September 16, 2007

Times columnist: stop shoving religion down my throat

reposted from:

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Times columnist: stop shoving religion down my throat

Columnist Carol Sarler has an enjoyable rant in today's Times, asking why the media pays so much attention to religious matters when, statistically, so few people seem to care any more: "It is a peculiar reversal of social logic that the decline in the practice of religion should be met with such a rise in reference to it".

Carol's confused why the media are so concerned with issues like the sexuality of priests, but also worried about the deference given to religion: "Good manners today disallow the questioning of a man's belief as sternly as they disallow jokes about it. . . It has become a sine qua non of courteous interaction that those of us without a religious bone in our bodies must defer to those who have". My favourite statement in the article is that "there are in Britain more practising anglers than practising Anglicans", a point I have made a mental note to make use of in the future.

There's only one problem with this article really. If everyone suddenly stopped going on about religion, the industrious staff at New Humanist would be out of a job without a penny to our names...

Our attention was demanded yesterday by headline “news” that, thousands of miles away in Zimbabwe, Archbishop Pius Ncube has tendered his resignation to the Pope after rumours of sexual derrings-do – even though, in his case, his alleged partner was adult, female and consensual; hardly, therefore, an earth-shattering story except, possibly, to the small minority of Britons who are Roman Catholics.

The previous day, we had been similarly commanded to turn our thoughts to the pros and cons of subjecting Muslim faith schools, beloved of an even smaller minority, to state control. Last week conservative religious leaders of all stripes were handed ample airtime to condemn embryo research; for three straight months we have been daily reminded, amid all else, of the beliefs of the family McCann.

It is a peculiar reversal of social logic that the decline in the practice of religion should be met with such a rise in reference to it.

Consider: if as many as 6.3 per cent of the population attend church (hold tight; we’ll nit-pick the figures in a moment) and if it would be fair to say that easily half of those don’t give a fig whether the bloke in the robes at the front is gay or not – why is it that the remaining 97 per cent of unconcerned people are being relentlessly subjected to the quibbling about it?

Of course, it might not be exactly 6.3 per cent; this happens to come from the religious think-tank Christian Research, but religion and statistics are notoriously awkward bedfellows. Census results have been criticised for the phrasing of the question “Which religion are you?”, which produced twice as many “Christians” as another survey found believers in God. The Catholic Church, enjoying something of a boost from Polish and other migrant workers, claims more than 900,000 Mass attendances per week – which sounds healthy until you ask how many of the devout go more than once a week.

Our Muslim population is 1.6 million, but considerably more than half of those are children, while the Jewish population is believed to be alone in undercalculating its size, given an understandable reluctance – especially among older Jews of Eastern European origin – to tick boxes marked “Jewish”. Nobody, however, sensibly denies the overall decline in religious practice. Even the top-up provided by ethnic minority immigration does not help; in London, black churchgoers now outnumber whites, but declining churches are still losing more people than growing churches are gaining.

And yet, our pal from Mars, dropping by for his first visit in a generation, would be hard pressed to believe it. Last time he called, the British enjoyed a comfy relationship with their religions, whereby more people worshipped but far fewer mentioned it. Weeks would go by without religious reference in the media beyond Thought for the Day and Songs of Praise; these days, by contrast, it is routinely the stuff of front pages.

When I was a child, archbishops were kindly, benign coves, wheeled out on big occasions; they didn’t, by and large, jump into newsprint to tackle “issues” in the name of their cloth.
Even half a generation ago, Ann Widdecombe’s sincerely held religious commitment, one which must have informed her work as a minister, was regarded as just part of an amiable eccentricity that elevated her to a national treasure; today, Ruth Kelly’s comparable commitment has become her defining characteristic.

This is not to say that the tenets of religion have opened to greater debate: indeed, if only. Good manners today disallow the questioning of a man’s belief as sternly as they disallow jokes about it and to offend by either means may be, at least, a sacking offence or, at most, a matter of law. It has become a sine qua non of courteous interaction that those of us without a religious bone in our bodies must defer to those who have, and even determined antitheists are to hush our mouths lest we “cause offence” (in vain might we cry of the offence that we often feel).

The more liberal the person or the institution, the more likely it is that they accommodate the illiberal – as long as it comes in religious guise. Take, for instance, schools; all progressive schools worth their label will, these days, boast of their efforts to teach children about each other’s “cultures”. In fact, they lie. What they are teaching is each other’s religions. If they really meant culture, it would involve song, dance, art, literature, dress, drink and food; all we actually get, in most cases, are religious festivals – and if food gets mentioned, it is only to explain that the reason child X cannot eat the meal as enjoyed by child Y is because child X has a god who says he must not.

It cannot be coincidence that this deference towards religion in general has paralleled the muddled, if well-meaning, response specifically to the growth of Islam. Muddled because of a confusion between ethnicity and religion; well-meaning because it was the same commendable urge to show respect for ethnicity that widened to insist upon respect for the religion that often came with it. And if endless news bulletins bowed to “From a Muslim point of view . . .”, it is hardly surprising that, in the name of all things equal, every other small minority possessed of a deity has demanded prominence too.

It does not, however, make it any less absurd. At the moment,

there are in Britain more practising anglers than practising Anglicans
– but it is unimaginable, is it not, that in an effort to give properly representative nods to similarly consuming passions we might afford the same attentions to the sexuality of a carp that we give to a priest’s?

Nobody should seek to deny the right to worship. Whatever gets you through the night and all that. But a sense of proportion is running overdue; the interests of a minority are, by definition, a minority interest and deserve no more, if no less, consideration than any other.

Certainly not out of fear of “causing offence”, when secular sense is there to remind us that nobody, ever, has the right not to be offended. God-given or otherwise.

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