Religion is no cure, but it helps

By David Aaronovitch, February 23, 2012

News of the Bideford prayers ruling reached me in foreign parts, and provoked a regression. It got more pronounced when the other parts of the establishment - the atheist professor, the former archbishop, the Queen (apparently) and the papers joined the debate. I'm sure the chief rabbi said something important, but it wasn't reported in Bangkok.

The regression was back to the North London of the late 60s. At my school we had two assemblies, one with hymns and Christian prayers, and another where a significant minority of boys went to participate in "Jewish prayers". These were the only two options.

I went to the Christian one since it seemed to me the default position, and so the least actively religious. Others took the view that Jewish prayers were the way to go for the agnostic and atheist. Anyway, I have ended up with the ability to recite the Lord's Prayer and I still know the words to many hymns.

Apropos of Dawkins, my guess is that a very small proportion in either assembly believed very much or anything of what they sang and recited. But those conscripts at Christian assembly, if they didn't believe, were not really Christians. Whereas those non-believers who attended Jewish prayers were still Jews who, in their later lives, might well want to maintain connections with Judaism for just about any reason other than belief in the Almighty. The last reason they perform non-elective prepucectomies on their sons is that they believe in an eccentric covenant. They do it mostly because it's what we do, what we've done and if we're to continue to be "we" then we'll go on doing it. They'll parade around - deeply moved - with scrolls containing words that they think are absurd.

Absurd, and beautiful. At my Marxist father's funeral, Kaddish was sung by the religious son of a close friend. His clear voice seemed to burst through the roof. I still can't write of it without tears at the recollection. Of course, it may help that I had no idea what the Hebrew meant. These days I wish carols were in Sanskrit so I didn't have to try and force myself to utter nonsense like "offspring of the virgin's womb". But that moment remains with me.

It's this emotional feeling that persons of God tend to trade on. Bishops have a nice little schtick about how music and architecture inspired by religion somehow suggest the presence of an omniscient being. It seems unfriendly to point out that, for much of history, religion was where the money was - hence all those paintings of Jesus. Also bishops don't tend to cite the Pyramids as a vindication of the cult of Osiris.

But so what? My point about unreligious Jews doing religious stuff while both not believing it and still somehow enjoying it, tells us something about ourselves. In Iain Martin's Born Liars, he points out that we deceive ourselves as much as we deceive others. The placebo effect, he argues, demonstrates both the power of that deception, and also its strange benignity. A placebo won't cure cancer, but it can sometimes stop pain.

I am part Jewish by birth, name, background and affectation; I am atheist by upbringing and conviction; I am Anglican by aesthetic sympathy. I like the Church of England most of the time because (a) it looks after the cathedrals and I love the cathedrals, (b) church members, like practicing Jews, do many good things, and (c) it is full of doubt and uncertainty and it's clear that faiths - religious or not - are most dangerous when they are most certain. In Cambodia I met a man whose parents had been shot by the Khmer Rouge, and I think he might agree. He was, incidentally, looked after by Buddhist monks for ten years.

I can recite the Lord's Prayer and still know many hymns

And this, I suppose, is my feeling on coming back to another grand battle about belief. Blind faith is the enemy, not religion.

Last updated: 11:59am, February 23 2012