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Greg Sheridan Wrong About Religion and Riots

August 11, 2011

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.

  1. Bruce Ridings permalink
    August 11, 2011 4:10 pm

    Don’t forget that during WW2 the German armed forces wore a belt with a buckle inscribed with ‘Gott Mit Uns’ (God is with us)

  2. Alex Banzic permalink
    August 11, 2011 4:49 pm

    I agree with Greg on a lot, but I think today’s article in The Australian is too harsh, particularly in its ascertain that Europe is effectively a failure. A failure compared to what – Africa? The Middle East? South East Asia? South America? It’s Economic woes are are 5 year problem, not a 20+ year problem.

    On religion – Bob you are spot on. Tell the Poles or Italians they are not Catholic and see what response you get!

  3. martin spencer permalink
    August 11, 2011 5:29 pm

    I absolutely agree with your position on religion and morality, at best the two qualities are uncorrelated in both individuals and communities.

    I am very curious in your concluding remark: “a big welfare state is part of the problem and expanding it not part of the answer. See below.” I read your article below and you don’t suggest that we should get rid of the welfare state, just encourage people off welfare.

    Given that, I make two suggestions:

    1. The welfare state is absolutely necessary, since capitalism does seem to intrinsically involve a certain minimum level of unemployment, and I refuse to live in a society in which people who happen to fall to the bottom, are left behind. Without some fundamentally new situation, capitalism and the welfare state are married together.

    2. I put it to you that the “fundamentally new situation” referred to in point 1, is a society with a great deal more worker co-operatives. Local communities based around workplaces, in which employment is not a separate cold contract with an employer, but a co-operative enterprise in which the profits are owned by the workers. The problem is getting the capital for these organisations, since investors won’t get anything out of it.

  4. August 11, 2011 6:04 pm

    Hi Bob

    I’m not sure Lazarus, Jesus and a couple others being raised from the dead would be described as paltry – pretty outrageous sure – but not paltry.

    And as for the other questions about the Christian faith – they are good ones – so maybe some amateur theology tied in with the amateur history would be fruitful.

    Subtly (or otherwise) painting Christians (and indeed anyone who believes in God) as some sort of mental infant – is pretty tiring. ‘The church poisons everything’ is the cry, and there are some mistakes no doubt, but there are a number of positives that we just chose to overlook, martin luther king and the like.

    Unbelief requires some element of faith as well.

    You don’t even have to be a theist to at least ask questions over more than fiscal policy.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      August 11, 2011 6:25 pm

      Churches do a great job. Not the point, however.

      Meanwhile the only miracles I have seen are scientific ones.

      Would have liked a divine intervention at Auschwitz. Or a miracle that stilled the guns in World War 1.

      • Peter Pando permalink
        August 12, 2011 5:54 am

        Dear Mr Carr,
        I agree, divine intervention also would be great re: the Bali bombings, WTC 9/11, Rwandan genocide, Srebrenica, Pol Pot’s regime, the rape of Nanking, Stalin’s purges, Mao’s ‘cultural oppression’, atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, and don’t forget the multiple current events we hear about. In its absence historically, the only hope is that divine intervention becomes retrospective – not brushed out of history with double-speak, but with ultimate respect accorded the victims of injustice and cultural memory disciplined to understand this. We set up memorials, we analyse what caused the injustice, we set up protective systems. That’s what the notion of ‘resurrection’ is: production of something new and even greater despite and because of what was destroyed. It could be evolutionary if we realise that social imagination (or ‘public opinion’) is something experimental science has only brute control over (see terrifying USSR abuses of psychiatry for examples of brute control). Perhaps, if the Treaty of Versailles had been less punitive and more forgiving, the wreckage in Germany wouldn’t have rolled on to Auschwitz. Then again, perhaps if the old Germany had ‘forgiven’ and remained loyal to its losing Kaiser it wouldn’t have wound up with a Fuhrer. The tale of rising above injustice is sacred, as is forgiveness, and I think worthy of a religion. For this reason, welfare should nurture, not only sustain. Unfortunately it is sometimes administered brutally by those who don’t understand the value of sharing a land of plenty.

    • August 12, 2011 2:28 pm

      Unbelief in fairies or Santa requires no belief for me. It’s easy because I can tell they’re man-made stories.

      In a similar way, God has shown how man-made He is — everywhere He shows up, and under all names He goes by — simply because I can see the path that humans took to invent him.

      It’s easy to not believe in things when you can see how they were invented.

      No matter what supposed evidence anyone comes up with, you know it’s false because you know that they made up God in the first place, then looked for evidence for Him.

      You can see it’s backwards, but they can’t because they’re emotionally invested in their pretend friend being really, really real, or else they would freak out.

    • A.D. permalink
      August 12, 2011 2:50 pm

      If you’re wishing to cite Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of religious belief at work, keep in mind that the black civil rights movement and related events such as the March on Washington was just as much (if not moreso) the work of atheists and free-thinkers such as A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.

      • August 12, 2011 4:17 pm

        Hi A.D.

        Sure – I am not arguing that religion or in particular has a mortgage on good. All humanity can (and should) do an amazing amount of good.

        Just tired of the ‘religion poisons everything’ idea that is just as hard to keep to if you look at the evidence.

        Schools, Hospitals, Aged Care, suicide prevention services – no end of things that Religious people contribute – and in many instances even lead, but that is not often put forward in a balanced way.


  5. John Ryan permalink
    August 11, 2011 11:56 pm

    No sensible Christian would argue that Christians have a mortgage on goodness. The whole sorry story of the Old Testament makes the point that even the people God chose were constantly found wanting in the morality department.

    It’s a big call to say that the sacrifice of Jesus was a huge non-sequitur. But it’s not an original or new claim. St Paul responded to similar sprays about Jesus, less than 20-30 years after the gospel events, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

    The message of Jesus persists. His life is without doubt one of the most significant events in human history. I believe it and I’m no fool. Thousands of other people with intelligence greater than mine do too. I’d have liked divine intervention at Auschwitz too. I don’t know there wasn’t, but I accept that there might be a few things about God that I don’t understand. But it’s a plain as a pikestaff to me that without God there is no objective moral compass on which I can pass any sound judgment that Auschwitz was the moral atrocity we all believe it to be. To some Auschwitz is human behaviour consistent with a belief that might is right and the strongest have a greater right to survival over the weakest.

    But while I don’t agree with your view, you certainly express it well.

    • August 12, 2011 2:23 pm

      “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom” but John Ryan is happy to blindly believe in something written down 2000 years before his own birth, taking on faith the things others have told him, rather than updating to the scientific way of understanding the universe.

      Thanks for reminding us about Christian “logic” and spraying us with bible quotes that mean nothing outside the circular logic of the bible itself.

      Also, the smarter people are, the less likely they are to say things like “and I’m no fool”. It’s the one who thinks he holds all the answers in a very old book in his hand who is the fool for believing he knows anything at all.

      • John Ryan permalink
        August 12, 2011 8:18 pm

        Well Glenn what makes you think I don’t also take a scientific approach? I know plenty of scientists who also believe the Gospel. Only last week I attended a lecture by Oxford Mathematics Professsor John Lennox who has given people like Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer a run for their money in public debates. Not only do plenty of intelligent people believe in God but overwhelming the vast majority of humans who have ever lived, and currently live, believe in spiritual things. I see no reason for smugness. I don’t hold blind faith, and my belief that Jesus is God is as defensible and as legitimate as your beliefs.

  6. August 12, 2011 2:51 pm

    “Resurrection as religious cliche?” Maybe to a jaded post Christendom West but hardly in the first century. Come on Bob – you’re a better historian than that. NT Wright puts it like this: ‘Indeed, whenever the question of bodily resurrection is raised in the ancient world the answer is negative. Homer does not imagine that there is a way back; Plato does not suppose anyone in their right mind would want one. There may or may not be various forms of life after death, but the one thing there isn’t is resurrection: the word anastasis refers to something that everybody knows doesn’t happen.’

    • CrazyHorse permalink
      August 13, 2011 12:47 pm

      Yet, the reality of Christianity is supposed to depend on it.

  7. Watson permalink
    August 12, 2011 4:41 pm

    I don’t have much faith in religion. I would much prefer a scientific approach. While science makes mistakes, unlike religion it is prepared to admit to them, it takes pride in fixing them, always building to a clearer and more robust understanding of human nature.

    I was particularly disappointed with David Cameron’s glib characterization of the rioters as ‘just criminal not political’, even to the point of blaming their parents which is just pathetic scapegoating. Every event has a context, and there is just too much research that demonstrates that groups behave very differently from individuals.


    Phillip Zimbardo’s ‘The Lucifer Effect’ should be compulsory reading for all public officials.

  8. michael j permalink
    August 12, 2011 8:24 pm

    I had religion (catholic) shoved down my throat so much while growing up that by the age of 16 i would have been more than capable of participating in a ‘riot’. I am much more peaceful now that i am a long time aetheist.

  9. wearestardust permalink
    August 12, 2011 10:27 pm

    +1. Not to mention the English Civil War which had its origins in disagreements over the form of Sunday church services.

    @ Bruce Riding: sorry to be picky, but we don’t want to be exaggerating: the “Gott Mit Uns goes back to the army of Frederick I, King in Prussia (Frederick the Great’s dad) and was not specifically Nazi. SS Belt buckles had the motto “my honour is loyalty” (in german of course).

  10. Bruce S permalink
    August 13, 2011 12:15 am

    My argument which follows goes to acceptance of religion, patriotism to a nation, history, and so on and it is this:

    For the individual concerned, each human birth is neither a self-choice or even a desired one – it just happens, an accident. Not one of us has a say in our time or place to be born or even to whom. Each one of us could have even been the opposite gender to what we turned out to be or in rare case somewhere in between – we simply had no choice.

    With that in mind, my ancestors could have chosen to move to Swaziland, and could have chosen to follow a completely different religious path which would have meant, given that scenario that should I have been born, i would have been raised in a different faith or maybe no faith at all. If you agree your very existence came about by chance then it surely follows your religious upbringing is also pure chance and same applies to your pride in your country which is, after all, a political construct not of your making.

    The only substance, for want of a more suitable word, each of human beings has in common and cannot be denied, is our basic humanity, nothing else.

  11. Charles permalink
    August 13, 2011 3:13 pm

    Bob, you are no doubt familiar with the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, specifically his Democracy in America in which book de Tocqueville writes extensively about the relationship between religion and democracies, and in which he writes of the necessity of religion in democracies.

    I wonder what you have to say about this. I must say, as much as I am more inclined to go along with the atheists than not, de Tocqueville’s words on this matter appear to explain much and have been gnawing at me for years.

  12. August 13, 2011 4:20 pm

    The fact that Europe is the least superstitious nation would have very little to do with breakdown of society. The middle classes just seem to think that the lower classes are just vermin, very similar to what the Nazi’s believed. However the same middle classes see no problem in placing financial barriers in front of youth as if having a degree is only for the well to do. Giving education to your own citizens is an investment no one seems to see any return on. I would have thought and educated populace would have a 10 fold benefit to society than an unemployed populace on the dole. But that seems to be too much for Mr Shannahan to contemplate. I’m not suggesting free education, or communism just a point of view not based in greed nepotism and religious piety Mr Shannahan subscribes too.

  13. August 13, 2011 5:40 pm

    AB points out the ‘pretty tiring’ nature of the inference that Christians/Christianity is intellectually inferior. Agreed.

    And Bob, equally trite is relying on the supposed science-faith division. This conflict is a long-term beat-up – it’s an article of faith for the anti-faith folk. The reality is much more interesting, complex, complementary and challenging.

    I’m not saying science is ‘Christian’, but I would say science does not start without commitments that stem from Christianity.

    • CrazyHorse permalink
      August 14, 2011 1:54 pm

      What commitments (either stemming from Christianity or not) stop science starting today?

      Please don’t reference science, scientific traditions or scientists that developed in the days when everyone had to be a scientist or they were threatened with the fate of Bruno or threatened the way Galileo was …

      The same with the development of “Schools, Hospitals, Aged Care”. Besides these are very attractive tax-deductible methods of material proselytising for already wealthy corporate religious behemoths.

      “Lazarus, Jesus and a couple others being raised from the dead’ are just allegations, propositions or parables.

      • August 14, 2011 2:46 pm

        I may have misunderstood your question, CrazyHorse, so I’ll state what I take it to be: what is an example of a commitment that is required for science (and don’t just say ‘N’ was ‘Christian’)?

        Is that right?

        One commitment the is required for science: a worldview that treats the physical world as both orderly and open to investigation.

        Some forms of polytheism, for example, see the world as essentially random. Some beliefs, including strong strands of Greek philosophy, see matter as something to flee – definitely not to experiment upon.

        Christianity’s POV is that there’s one God in control (of course, raising the problem of evil), and who called the created order ‘good’. Matter is, in Christian theology, ordered and worthy of testing.

  14. August 14, 2011 12:34 am

    I can understand the notion of faith and the good work of many religious people, but what I find outrageous are the appalling things that have been done in the name of religion, and the willingness of otherwise sane people to defend dogma to the death – dogma that can usually be shown to be contradictory and irrational.

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