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  • Writer's picturepeter grose


Updated: Sep 14, 2023

I am indebted to my namesake Jessica Grose (no relation), a talented and fluent opinion writer on The New York Times, for the following information: somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 churches close in the US every year; the number of Americans who say religion is important to them has dropped from 62% in 1998 to 39% now; the proportion of Americans who describe themselves as atheists has more than doubled from 2-3% in 1988 to 7% today. Finally, the proportion of the US population who go regularly or even occasionally to church, synagogue or mosque has dropped from 83% in 1988 to 69% in 2021.

As Ms Grose points out, people react to these numbers in two polarised ways. Atheists like me are inclined to say: what kept you? On the other hand, true believers see all of this as a symptom of America’s moral collapse. What particularly bothers true believers is the rise of the ‘nones’. These are people who, when confronted with the question of religious affiliation in census forms, answer ‘none’. Their numbers went from 0% to 2% in the early 1950s and have been rising steadily thereafter. The numbers have now plateaued at around 20%.

The most unexpected statistic quoted by Ms Grose is this: of 7,000 people who reacted to her original article, some 2300 used the word ‘community’ in describing the benefits of religious worship. Sociologists agreed. Apparently going to church is a way of entry into a closer-knit community than, say, the local soccer or golf club.

Now I have spent a lot of my waking hours thinking about religion. One thing we atheists had better acknowledge straight away is the universality of religion. So far as I know, no civilisation has ever existed without religion. Why?

My simplistic and unsubstantiated answer is that all religions begin as ways of controlling the weather. If you live in a mud hut and hunt for food, the weather plays an important role in your survival. Why not ask whoever is in charge of the weather to give you a break? Even today I’ve seen young men on the Greek island of Hydra plunge into the Mediterranean amid flowers scattered on the water to ask Jesus to bring lots of fish that year. Maybe that’s when I got the idea about the weather?

In general religion reminds me of a joke attributed to the comedian Stan Freberg. He began his career as an advertising copy writer and, on being asked to sing the praises of a Japanese product, he wrote: From those wonderful people who brought you Pearl Harbor. When anyone sings the praises of religion, I always think: From those wonderful people who brought you the Inquisition.

Nevertheless I think religion deserves a better hearing than it gets. For instance some of the noblest ideas of western civilisation derive from religion. I’m thinking of turn the other cheek , and even love thy neighbour as thyself. Yes, these ideas are as much Buddhist as Christian, but so what? If Christianity prevailed there could be no wars (Thou shalt not kill). There would not even be a need for Black Lives Matter since black lives would be protected by the same commandment.

For me the biggest plus of modern Christianity can be found when you look at poor parts of the world. How many Africans and Asians owe their education, medical treatment and even daily food to Christian organisations? How many refugees owe their lives to Christians? Not enough, you respond. Okay, I agree. But surely a few refugees saved is better than none.

I was forced this week to think about the support religion gives people in times of crisis. Why this week? Well, on Thursday I made a one-day trip to the UK for the funeral of a dear and longtime friend. She goes back a long way with our family, as far back as my wedding to Roslyn 57 years ago. Our daughter Anouchka, then aged a bit over two, played a role at her wedding.

The funeral service was as good as it gets, even if we were stuck with the creationist hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful. Originally written for children in the first half of the 19th century. the first verse becomes the chorus and goes like this:

All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small,

All things wise and wonderful,

The Lord God made them all.

However we were spared the dismal and stultifying later verse which goes:

The rich man in his castle

The poor man at the gate,

God made them high and humble

And ordered their estate

This was sensibly left out.

The service was part of another defence of religion. On the board outside the church we learned that the church also offered baptisms, weddings, funerals and so on. These occasions are all times of high emotion, and all religions come up with rituals to steer us through them. So we men all know to wear sombre suits to funerals, and women know to wear weird hats to weddings. At a ritual dance or corroboree, Australian aboriginals know what body paint to use and how to make it look right. Moments of high emotion like births, marriages and deaths become survivable by sticking to the rules set out in the ritual. Religion helps us to know what to do.

Not that we weren’t treated to some of the usual religious poppycock along the way. Our friend's daughter died a few weeks before her mother. The pastor, who clearly knew them both, told us we could take comfort in the fact that they were now reunited. Bollocks!

I sent a link to this blog entry to Jessica Grose and had this charming and generous response:

Hi Peter,

This was great. I heard from readers exactly what you observed: that religion is missed most acutely during big life milestones: births, deaths, marriages.



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