In defence of the libertine society

Right, time for me to pick up my stick and take yet another swing at the pinata of religious faith.

Casting a satirical eye over the week’s events you may have noticed Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor taking up space in national broadsheets and in government-backed reports to complain, with absolutely no sense of irony, that religion is being forced out of the public sphere.

The report, entitled ‘Faith in the Nation,’ is the usual pro-faith propaganda from the government’s pet think tank. There’s loads of disparaging references to ‘aggressive secularists,’ although they are not consulted, or even named; there’s the familiar cliche that ‘the intolerance of liberal sceptics can be as repressive as the intolerance of religious believers’ (even though it never is). In a country where only a tiny percentage of people go to church the report declares, again without irony, that religion is central to British life.

Terry Sanderson has done a critique of the report. He points out the dubious foundations of its claims. He notes that Catholics in particular have deserted the pews, weary of the church’s crazier positions on G-spot issues like abortion and euthanasia.

He reminds us, also, that Cormac Murphy O’Connor has been the subject of a police investigation for allowing a predatory paedophile to work as a minister – even though the Cardinal was aware of this man’s crimes:

Peter believes that, as the Bishop in charge, Cormac’s actions condemned him to four years of abuse. ‘I feel livid towards him. The sweeping under the carpet as it were was his doing. It put me in the danger that I was in for that whole length of time.’

If you feel that religion has been sidelined, consider that a man in any other area of work who’d been the subject of such an investigation could expect to lose his job, his reputation, his liberty and even, in extreme cases, his very life. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor is given fawning interviews in national newspapers and contributes to IPPR reports.

Sanderson takes issue with this quote in particular:

The growth of religion in Britain and across the globe is in stark contrast to most of the predictions made in the 1960s by sociologists, the majority of whom foresaw the inexorable decline of religion. The opposite has happened: there has been a sharp rise in religious affiliations, practices and beliefs.

Yet the IPPR’s assertion is half right. Religion has declined in terms of believers and influence. But at the same time it has become more fashionable in policy and opinion. The vulgar Marxist view of religion is that the atheist capitalist elite use it to brainwash the masses. As Nick Cohen points out, the opposite is true of Britain today: ‘the cynical masses rejected religion while the dupes at the top converted’.

There is a standard narrative, traditionally held by reactionaries like the Cardinal but also gaining a stranglehold on liberal discourse. Religion may not be based on truth but at least it kept people together. Now look at us.  An empty, vapid, consumerist society obsessed with Facebook and the X Factor. The family’s gone, our national identity has gone. We believe in nothing, we worship the false god rationality; we stumble around in our mindless hedonistic lives like characters in a Douglas Coupland novel, desperately searching for something to fill the void.

This chorus of parochial wailing is everywhere. Here’s the novelist Jeannette Winterson:

But secularism is not at all the independence of mind that Martin Amis likes to talk about as the opposite of the fundamentalist attitude. We have created a society without values that believes in nothing. Reviving the god of the Philistines – Baal, the flesh-eater – human dignity has been eaten away by the relentless drive to make money at any cost and to spend money at any cost; especially money you don’t have.

So here we are, going shopping again at Christmas, millions out of a job, millions more utterly miserable and defeated by this experiment at life otherwise known as Nothing. We laugh at the primitive religious idea of human sacrifice – but whatever fancy words and theories you want to play with to describe this present spectacular collapse of global capitalism, it is human sacrifice on a scale undreamt of at the altars of idols.

This sort of bullshit would have been laughed out of town in the liberal-left circles of the 1960s: now it’s taken for wisdom, even radicalism. We’re all soulless, blundering automatons – the only solution, apparently, is a return to the funeral pyre.

Recently I read an article by some finance columnist who said that Woolworth’s went under because, although it provided many different services, other more specialised outlets could provide these services for much better value. So Woolies sold CDs, books and school uniforms – but people bought music from HMV, books from Waterstones and school uniforms from Tesco.

That is the problem faced by Cormac Murphy O’Connor and his co-religionists. Everything that religion does, can be done much more successfully without religion.

Problems with drugs and alcohol? You are better off checking into an NHS detox clinic than a faith-based abstinence programme. Got a mental health problem? Trained and salaried professionals are a stronger bet than the Samaritans. Homeless? Shelter takes far better care of street people than the Salvation Army. From international aid to adoption, the secular society does all kinds of humanitarian work much better than faith, because it isn’t contaminated with faith-based agencies’ natural incompetence and prejudice.

The reason why the Cardinal can go on about faith’s historic role in ministering to the sick is because his church predates all those soulless consumerist secular monoliths like antibiotics and welfare states. Before, the sick and weak went to the church – not because the church could help but because they had nowhere else to go.

Basically, religion is only good at religion – church weddings, funerals, choirs, and the like. There are plenty of nations where faith is central to society, but these societies are not known for their freedom and happiness – to put it charitably.


(Thanks to Godbiz for the image)

Update: More on this theme from Martin:

As I’ve written many times on this blog, there was a brighter time, back in the 60s and 70s, post Vatican 2, when thoughtful Christians saw secular humanists as allies in the fight against the common enemies of poverty and injustice. These days, more and more people of faith seemed to be infected by a dangerously anti-modern pessimism, and more concerned with saving ‘religion’ from those nasty secularists than with looking for the good in contemporary society.


2 Responses to “In defence of the libertine society”

  1. Off to the Godless bonanza | wongaBlog Says:

    […] Hmmm, good point. It is a bit militant of us, holding a stage show and all. I wouldn’t want to provoke the Church of England’s uncontrollable urge to feel victimised. […]

  2. Shame « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] By maxdunbar The government’s favourite cleric, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, is to be given a peerage – and by the looks of things he […]

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