Belfast Telegraph

God knows what it would be like if atheists ran the world

By Paul Hopkins

So how was Mass, my dear mother would ask as I turned the key in the hall-door. It must have been a long one - you're very late.

He was in the pub, my father would say.

He was right.

I was 17. Had gone to the last Mass, which involved the teenage ritual of standing at the back of the church - move up the aisle, the priest would intone - so as to eye up the young ones in their Sunday best and, in a whisper, coax them into joining us for a pint or two and a MiWadi, and making our carefree escape just as communion was being served.

It wasn't long before the last Mass was abandoned altogether in favour of the Sunday lunchtime pint. And, weddings, christenings and funerals apart - and the formative years of my children when I took them regularly to church - that was about it for me and organised religion.

The last time I was in a priest's company was planning my wedding. My wife-to-be, being a mere 19, the priest suggested we do a three-month pre-marriage course. My young intended was having none of it, so the priest said he could, though he wouldn't necessarily, refuse to marry us.

Begging your pardon, says I, but you don't marry anyone. We marry each other - you are merely a witness for God.

He blushed accordingly and turned abruptly to matters of the hymns.

He was a Jesuit. I thought he should have known better.

I mention all this because this week new research suggests people in these islands who declare themselves Christian display low levels of belief and practice.

Almost three quarters of the 1,136 people polled by Ipsos Mori agreed that religion should not influence public policy, and 92% agreed the law should apply to everyone equally, regardless of their personal beliefs.

Meantime, a survey of church attendance in Northern Ireland shows steep falls in many cases, despite 73% of respondents saying they still believe in a God or higher power.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph this week, Conservative chairwoman Baroness Warsi says the UK is under threat from a rising tide of "militant secularisation".

Religion is being "sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere".

Britain's first Muslim peer says Europe needs to become "more confident and more comfortable in its Christianity". She says: "To create a more just society, people need to feel stronger in their religious identities and more confident in their creeds.

"In practice, this means individuals not diluting their faiths and nations not denying their religious heritages."

Baroness Warsi, who is Britain's first female Muslim cabinet minister, goes on to write: "You cannot and should not extract these Christian foundations from the evolution of our nations any more than you can or should erase the spires from our landscapes."

The renowned atheist and evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins was quick to respond. "She is not Christian herself but nevertheless she sees religion as a good thing - it doesn't matter what religion as long as there's some religion and that's better than no religion. There is absolutely no logical basis for that". I beg to differ. I'm with the good baroness on this one.

Organised religion, despite its causation of war and hatred, despite all the badness and evil we now know proliferates in parts of it, despite its intransigent patriarchal attitudes, did, with its good tenets, lay a good grounding for moral values in our society.

Don't beat up old pensioners, don't mug the guy at the bus stop, don't kick to death the down-and-out immigrant for a handful of loose change. Don't covet your neighbour's wife. And, at the very least, if you cannot find it in your heart to love your neighbour, show empathy.

I learned that as core value, and I like to think my children did too, through the church I grew up in, and through the school that was guided by such tenets.

That religious belief no longer plays a formative or central role in many, many people's lives today is evident all around.

The fall-away in the sacredness of commitment, the sanctity of the family and community, and the honesty of our day-to-day dealings bear witness to this.

And the vacuum left by this downing of the, dare I suggest it, 10 Commandments has not been replaced by anything, anywhere near offering a moral code and guidance to those most in need of it. Certainly not in our schools where discipline is a thing of the past, and certainly not among those who are said to govern us, such is their moral bankruptcy.

In becoming an increasing secular, liberal society, we have, I fear, thrown the baby out with bathwater.

Could it be, as Baroness Warsi intimates, God is dead but no one has had the decency to tell Him? Or, at the very least, He's down the pub.

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