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Is there too much talk of religion?

God, yes. Hell, no

Published on August 17th 2010.

Is there too much talk of religion?

In a Guardian interview recently Booker Prize nominated novelist Howard Jacobson wrote, “I grew up in a (Manchester) neighbourhood that was half Jewish and half not. There would have been synagogues not far off but it was by no means a ghetto”.

“It was entirely non-religious in a way I really liked and still like and miss because Jews have become more religious again. There was a feeling of ‘we’re Jewish and we know we’re Jewish’. (But) there was no question of ever sending us to Jewish schools. (My family) wanted us out there. They wanted us to be lawyers and doctors. They wanted us out of the religious thing, apart from ethnic bonding.”

Growing up in Rochdale in the seventies and eighties and looking back to the News my dad watched and listened to religiously (so to speak) there didn’t seem much mention of faith in a British context, certainly not in a militant way. Dull old ‘Songs of Praise’ didn’t appear to be on a mission. Nor was there much religious content in the bizarre collection of papers my dad had delivered every day – The Guardian and The Daily Mail.

That was then.

Now religion is all over the place. Whether it's Harrow Council’s decision to serve only Halal meals, or debates over the burkha or the latest pronouncement from the Pope, religion has more media prominence than it’s had in decades. Meanwhile since Blair’s government in 1997 one in three schools have become faith based as opposed to one in six when I grew up.

Maybe this re-stirring of religion as an issue is because the second and third generation descendants of particularly Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants have the confidence as born-Britons to be open about their religious and cultural roots. This has led a very few of their number to promote the more extreme ideas of some versions of Islam.

This in turn has led to a reaction of faith groups (and secular opponents - but the debate is still one about religion)to become more forceful about their credo as well. It’s led to people who have never described themselves as being of any particular faith suddenly talking about being ‘Christian’ or of a ‘Christian heritage’.

At the same time liberal commentators and policymakers suddenly find themselves in a moral quagmire. If we are liberal, the argument goes, we should be tolerant enough to allow cultural traditions to express and celebrate their heritage and ideas but what happens when some of their traditions seem to be intolerant of others - indeed seem to work against or even wish to destroy the tolerance we as a liberal society hold so dear?

And thus the broadsheets are filled on a weekly basis with hand-wringing on the subject.

Two things are absolute in most religion and religious sects. First off they have superiority complexes, they think they are guardians of the One True Word. Secondly they are packed with neuroses, worried sick that they are becoming irrelevant in a Western world filled with people given choice in the here and now not clinging to the hope of better times in the next life.

The result is that religion has become a cause to squabble over once more in Britain. This is something since the religious conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that Britain, at home, has steadily turned its back upon. Indeed by the twentieth century Britain had mostly made the evangelical pursuit of religion a byword for weirdness. There seemed nothing as crazed as a Bible-belt TV-preacher belching out fire and brimstone. We’d pushed it aside. Maybe there was some genetic memory of the idiotic religious conflicts we'd suffered in the past, but no British politician would, and still won't, use religion as say an American politician or one from the Middle East.

For many of us – that’s the way it should be. The growing profile of religion in civic society as Jacobson indicates is something to regret, it’s both exclusive and divisive. And irrational. A grotesque step backward to superstition. (JS)

Howard Jacobson will be reading from his Booker-listed novel The Finkler Question on 2 September at The International Anthony Burgess Foundation, The Engine House, Chorlton Mill, 3 Cambridge St, City, M1 5BY. 0161 235 0776.

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28 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

James KeneallyAugust 15th 2010.

More and more religious schools create division and a culture of separateness. They should only exist if paid for purely by the religious group not state supported. Where else is state discrimination encouraged like this? Could you have a Catholics only Planning Department in Local Government, Baptists in the Parks Department, Muslims in the Chief Executives department. No. It would appear absurd. It would be flagrant discrimination. Only even-handed secular principles can ever avoid claims of bias. They are the only principles without dogma, the only ones that don´t carry the writ of the One True Word of a supernatural authority.

AgreeAugust 15th 2010.

What I hate is that religious groups argue that their strength is they provide a moral code. But most people know when they do wrong – we instinctively know it´s wrong to steal, that it´s wrong to harm others even when we do it. Nobody needs religion to teach us that, they simply need reasonable parents and a decent education and commonsense. At the same time a moral code that can´t contemplate the notion of women bishops or believes that their ‘book´ is the final book and nothing else can be written about the way a person should lead a life isn´t any sort of moral code I want my kids to acknowledge. Indeed it becomes an immoral code.

Man Con JobsAugust 15th 2010.

Urgently require software engineer/ architect to sort out our apostrophe problem. Competitive benefits include free food at San Carlos.

Martin HughesAugust 16th 2010.

It's simple really. AGREE should not use Microsoft Word or any other word processor to type in straight-forward text.
Like religion, Microsoft bastardizes everything.

Leigh ScottAugust 16th 2010.

This is a Christian country where western 'Civilisation' always wanted to lead from the front taking the moral obligation under the code of the bible.

Christianity in this country at least was the first to open it's doors to Democracy being the only faith to accept other faiths in it's wake.

That was clearly a mistake as our forefathers who defended these shores, which lay dead on the coast lines of our country demonstrate. The hijacking of the good will of the majority Christins who rebuilt the fabric of our society after the first and second World wars is sold in order to allow the a multicultural society to develop.

100's of years of wars havent achieved this yet christianity has laid down it's sword and given in to other faiths.

I agree with this in principal but only on the basis that a religion takes no more from society than it puts in.

I know of no other religions than Christianity who have historically given so much more to this country yet are driven to the back of the queue when it comes to handouts and development.

Some of us may not believe in Jesus but the least great british society should do is to believe in the people who did because Christainity clearly offered moral codes that brought people, communities,families,neighbours and societies together as opposed to today's ignorance and this look out for me and mine scrambling game for the right to the mantle of Great Britain.

Faiths should get no more out of society than they put in, right now Christianity is being hijacked on the back of democracy rather than an open loving and caring for all nature...

We are a nation of confused individuals fighting for our place where for many that place has been lost and Christianity has given up.

I don't believe that there is anything antiquated about these views not least when this weekend we are celebrating the abolishemnt of slaivery in Alexander park.

NEWWORLDORDERAugust 16th 2010.

Dunno what you mean!

Stuart BamberAugust 16th 2010.

Scotee, you set up a fair number of strawmen there; not least the "Christians have given most to this country". Well of course, because until recent times, the country was entirely... you got it! Christian. The assertion that the UK somehow recovered well from WWI & WWII thanks to "Christianity" is ridiculous.

"christianity has laid down it's sword and given in to other faiths"

Wrong. Christianity is massively resurrgent in the US, with a very vocal and powerful Evangelical movement. They DO see Iraq/Afghanistan as holy wars.

You speak of Christian moral codes, and I agree. The New Testament does indeed provide inspiration and instruction. But it would've been equally valid without the supernatural superstition. So in effect, fear (of not reaching Heaven) was used as the stick to enforce biblical morality.

I put it to you that we are not "a nation of confused individuals" nor are we "fighting for our place where for many that place has been lost and Christianity has given up".

"I don't believe that there is anything antiquated about these views not least when this weekend we are celebrating the abolition of slavery in Alexander park."

There's nothing antiquated in 4,000 year old fairy tales? Abolishing Slavery was obviously a Good Thing, but you can't credit "Christianity" with that. Although progressive religious figures did indeed wield considerable clout, agreed - although of course both the OT and NT explicitly condone slavery.

I hope that theists become an irrelevant minority in my life time!

Leigh ScottAugust 16th 2010.

Interesting that Stewie.

Leigh ScottAugust 16th 2010.

The the very fact that Christians have given most to this country surely means that the president should be there for the Christian way of life rather than the biased diversity that occurs for the sake of democratic political point-scoring and goes on to break up communities.

In Oldham (of all places) following the riots of the nineties they now intend to throw together religiously seperate schools in to one large mixed school. That is either an act of extremely well thought out genius or abject stupidity.This is the type of example of a lost society or; at the very least, lost leaders who fail to understand their people but need to impose financial cuts.

4000 year old fairy tales? I wanted to draw attention to those that who protected the nation and which believed in God as opposed to the parting of the sea!

My comment regarding the abilition of slavery was more geared to the randomness of such an piece. How does assisting in the promotion of the celebratory abolition of slavery in any way benefit a multi-cultural-religious society?
It's antiquated and people should feel quite uneasy as I did having visted the carnival this weekend as a white man who played no part in slavery after 1817!

Religion is very important whether you belive in god or not; the history of what has been built through it is not to be wasted and lessons should still be learned.

Stewie I belive that this country is lost in many ways and so are it's people.And if the church wanmts to protect the country it needs to strap a pair on and get back to it's original values throwing the politics out of the window.

It would gain far more respect that way

Right i'm off for a piss before I slit me wrists!

Frank JamesAugust 16th 2010.

The apostrophe problem happens with wordpress too; no problem in the post content, but the title gets f'cked up.
BTW US Homeland Security forces are being taught that Christians are terrorists, because demographically they occupy the "right to bear arms" southern states

Bangla ChadAugust 17th 2010.

Scoteee, don't quite get what you're actually afraid of?

Where I come from there's a saying: If it's not broken, don't fix it. Oldham's broken! Fix it! Change! Don't segregate, integrate.

Once you understand your own fears of other (cultures), you might stop projecting such a scary image yourself...

Leigh ScottAugust 17th 2010.

Bangla I don't have a fear of other cultures, the topic is religion.

Bangla ChadAugust 17th 2010.

Then go watch 'the infidel' with Omid Djalili. Will make you laugh and take the fear of other religions/cultures (what the heck is the difference - it's all about a deity in the end) away...

Keith DavidsonAugust 17th 2010.

Maybe we need more religion, we need the standards and discipline it brings to society. Surely people can't fail to see the benefits of a religious life?

A WellsAugust 17th 2010.

People can't cope with the freedoms of a secular society, in that cold lonely place, they get waylaid by temptations such as drink and drugs and sex. Religion might be narrow-minded but it gives people a framework to live by for both their families and themselves. More religion please not less.

CheesemanAugust 17th 2010.

The last thing we need is more religion, I can't believe you are saying this, Jacobson and the writer are right - just bugger off with your divisive crap would you. Religion causes problems, builds armies. Yak.

Leigh ScottAugust 17th 2010.

agreed A wells

I'm not particularly religious but I do appreciate the values it brings to society a 'vehicle for the maintainence of social well-being' and a platform community infrastructure.For me It's as though these standards have been walked away from due to their 'religious connectivity' forgetting the country's original values,how it maintained them coupled with a lack of thought as to a suitable alternative.
as though many are saying 'We dont want religion so we'll walk away from it' but there is nothing to replace that social inclusuion and community involvement, nothing to replace responsibility or standards.

Leigh ScottAugust 17th 2010.

what we need is a set of standards that all religions/non-religious groups can can agree to abide by so there is not the culture/religious split...

The government offer law and order but they continuously battle with social groups and communities agreeing on standards and levels of acceptabilty.

Of course we had something similar with the ten commandments old I know but principally workable?!

rogerrodeoAugust 17th 2010.

A proper definition of secularism will hopefully help. It means that there is a clear seperation between religions/faiths and the laws/government of the land and that they do not have priviledges that adversely impact on others. It prevents religions having undue influence over the lives of those who don't have the same beliefs. It does not mean that religion is bad or that religion should be suppressed, only that religious priviledge is wrong. eg. the Church of England bishops who set our laws in the House of Lords, the state funding of both faith-based schools that add to the divisions in our country or NHS chaplains that are of no use to other faiths or atheists and the part-state funding of the pope's visit here (despite his abhorrent views on aids in Africa and homosexuality).
Secularism is the way forward even for theists as it means religions cannot be attacked for priveledges they recieve.
There is only "too much religion" when it translates into religious priviledge.

TomAugust 17th 2010.

Religion as the basis for a moral and healthy society? Let's have a look at what has either been caused by, or excused by, Christianity in the UK alone:

Invasion and subjugation of peoples around the world, including the unforgivable treatment of the Irish.
Keeping people ignorant and afraid for centuries to maintain power in the hands of a tiny elite.
Millennia of systemic suppression of women
Persecution (torture, medical experiment) of homosexuals, Catholics, 'witches', Romanis.
(I'm sure there's loads that I've forgotten that others can add)

That is some quality moral guidance, right there. I dunno how I, as an atheist, am able to get through the day without murdering or robbing anyone.
Oh hang on, yes I do - it was because I was TOLD it was wrong when I was young, and I didn't have to be told that some invisible spirit was watching and judging me before I saw the truth of it.

Besides all of this is the fact that the basis of any religion is the requirement to believe in untruths and nonsensical fairy tales that no intelligent, well-balanced adult would believe in if they hadn't been indoctrinated as a child - which if you value individual freedom, expression and empowerment, must surely count as abuse.

If our society is 'lost', I would like to know when it was truly found, and what exactly that looked like. Yes, we've got our problems in the UK, but compared to lots of countries (including many VERY religious ones), we're relatively safe, co-operative with each other, and not many people are wanting for food and shelter. If that's the cost of being enlightened and free to make our own minds up about the nature of reality and morality, I think it's well worth it.

Leigh ScottAugust 17th 2010.

Tom Aetheism didn't built this country in which you choose to live and the men that died for it were more than likely not Aetheists.
In fact, I wonder which of your forefathers decided one day that any type of religeon was no longer for them, was it you? your parents? your grandparents? I wonder?

Aetheism is a luxury many would never have dreamt about when building the walls of the maternity hospital you were likely to have been born in! freedom of speech and expression is what you and I have been afforded but please don't disregard what your ancestors have built for you it's plainly ignorant!

TomAugust 17th 2010.

Scoteee, if you're going to reply to me, have the decency to actually make your reply relevant to my comments instead of ignoring them and prattling on irrelevantly.
Atheists didn't cause or excuse any of the awful things I mentioned either, which you have chosen to ignore!
People didn't have any choice to 'dream about atheism' because they were indoctrinated. It's not as if the masses individually chose to work in God's name, of their own volition. They did so because they were told to by the small minority who found it easier to push people around if they told the masses there was an invisible sky daddy who would know, and punish them, if they questioned what they were told. The principle is simple, it's an almost fundamental aspect of the way human society functions, and it's older than Christianity. That doesn't denigrate what they achieved, but it doesn't mean we have to accept the WAY it was achieved.

The reasons that I am an atheist are totally irrelevant to a logical discussion of the issue. A lot less personal questioning and a bit more critical thinking would help you sound less like a mentalist.

BlufinkAugust 17th 2010.

Well said, Tom and Stewie B

The FACT is we'd all be better off if we thought more kindly of humans than of gods.

ADAugust 17th 2010.

Religion can only ever provide a frame for a persons moral compass, If people feel they need that so be it, but more and more people are finding that they can live a moral life without god/s to guide them. That can cause problems in societies where the indoctrinated try to stop people enjoying that freedom to choose there own path. But ultimetly the truth is Democracy (and scientific knowlege) overtook religion years ago, and religion wont be catching up.

AnonymousAugust 17th 2010.

I'd like to suggest that the ultimate authority in a country should be a permissive one. A permissive society would allow a more draconian belief system or religion to exist, whereas having a strict belief system or religion in charge wouldn't allow a permissive one to exist with the freedoms it expected.

If that permissive society needs to purport to be inherently Christian then that seems OK to me, as nowadays they'll let members of society do pretty much what they want.

As a different point of view, if we take a look at society today we can probably see a decline in standards that is following a decline in those of us admitting to a religious belief. Maybe we need something a bit 'religious' to make us behave.

Leigh ScottAugust 18th 2010.

I think my initial points have be marred and steered a little but I like Rogerrodeo's comments.

NickAugust 20th 2010.

The idea that we should use religion as a basis for ethics or laws is horrifying. The Bible calls for stoning for adultery, killing of people of other religions, killing witches, destroying entire towns where a single person worships another god, beating children, maiming people for theft and other crimes; and it condones slavery, rape, war, torture and murder. Of course, you can ignore all of that and pick out the good bits, but that's not following Biblical Law. British laws are not 'an eye for an eye' - they are fairer, secular laws not based on religion. If you want to see what religious law looks like, visit Iran or Afghanistan. It's brutal and barbaric.

ScoteeeAugust 21st 2010.

Ever get feeling you're going around in circles?!

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