Greg Sheridan Wrong About Religion and Riots
In writing about the British riots Greg Sheridan asserts that “Western Europe is also perhaps the least religious society on earth.”
British Labour MP Frank Field has asserted the same thing when he’s visited Australia as a guest of the Centre for Independent Studies: the decline of church attendance and religious faith explains ruinous social behaviour such as riots, drunkenness, high crime rates. I must have heard this line of his a dozen times. It has never persuaded me, because as an amateur historian I think immediately about the horrors of society in those days when everyone went to church and everyone believed in God.
Meanwhile Greg is absolutely wrong about Western Europe being the least religious society. China is the least religious society on earth. Its leaders do not engage in public prayers. Its temples are a lot more obscure than the cathedrals that stand at the heart of European cities. Nobody treats religious doctrine – Buddhist, Confucian or Taoist – seriously, in the way it was treated by 18th century Qing dynasty emperors. And those little pockets of religion you do find seem designed for nothing more than ancestor worship. Other East Asian Confucian societies seem similarly irreligious by the standards of Europe or the United States; Japan for example. Oh, and let’s not forget Indochina and Indonesia.
While we are among the ASEAN nations, let’s note that only the Philippines gets revved up by religion. Pentecostalism seems to roar ahead in Singapore but you’d have to say their national ethos is about as entirely secular as it can be. By contrast with these Asian societies, Western Europe appears very much touched by religious faith.
I am puzzled by what Christian commentators like Frank Field want done about this anyway. The erosion of religion in the West is due to two centuries of scientific discovery that hollowed out religious certitudes. The churches ask people to sign up for a creed that is based on the acceptance of miracles (pretty paltry ones – a leper gets cured but not leprosy; a blind man gets cured but not blindness); the shop-worn notion of a virgin birth, which is common to all of eastern mystery religions; a resurrection which, again, is a religious cliche. The most difficult notion of all is the huge non-sequitur: the monotheistic God sent his son to be nailed on the cross to save humanity. And every time this is invoked, I and billions of others are left open-mouthed asking why? Saved from what? To do what? Why was a human sacrifice required to get the message across? And why was evidence of his resurrection left so obscure and ambiguous? And a host of questions follow: what about all those who died before this revelation in Galilee? About the people who lived and died in cultures unvisited by the Christian message? And so on.
There is another objection to this Christian view that society is breaking down because people stopped going to churches. It is this: there were serious riots, chronic substance abuse, institutionalised wife-beating, stratospheric crime rates, cruel murders, incessant child abuse and wholesale other abuses in societies where church attendance must have involved 80 percent of the population. The London of Dickens, as one example. Religious belief was universal. But human behavior was wicked. To take another extreme but unanswerable example, the Holocaust was conceived in a Germany where church attendance was high and most people believed in God, the Holy Family and all the saints. Indeed in the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem in Jerusalem I was reminded that one of the leaders of the Einsatzgruppen – death squads – was a Protestant pastor. Books have been written about church collaboration with the Nazis.
Social breakdown can’t be attributed to the fact that a large proportion of the population today finds it hard to sign up to religion. The advent of a scientific world view is the reason people stopped believing the priests. And apart from forced conversion at bayonet point there is nothing that can be done about it. Apart from this, I agree with Sheridan’s commonsense observations, especially that there is no simple explanation for these riots and a big welfare state is part of the problem and expanding it not part of the answer. See below.