Tuesday 21 September 2010

Hell is good business for religion

I wonder how the world will look to those unfortunate Chilean copper miners when, God willing, they finally emerge blinking into the daylight after four months or more trapped underground?

They may well be shocked by how attitudes have changed during their incarceration. Heaven knows I was uncharacteristically busy for just four days last week, so not paying my usual close attention to the media, and the chattering world transformed itself.

When I tuned out, the Pope was about to arrive for a visit that was unequivocally billed as a disaster in the making. An unholy alliance of national treasure Stephen Fry, atheist archbishop Richard Dawkins and serial human (but particularly gay) rights campaigner Peter Tatchell had all declared him wholly unwelcome.

Prof. Dawkins, indeed, had slated him as "the head of the world's second most evil religion", curiously without spelling out the proud holder of the number one spot, though he probably did not have Buddhism in mind.

The press was full of the prosecution case from AIDS to women’s rights, via contraception, child abuse, homosexuality and the Hitler Youth. Congregations were dwindling, seminaries closing, stacks of tickets for the set-piece events left unsold, and the whole circus a vast and expensive irrelevance to secular modern Britain.

Imagine my surprise when I turned on the TV news on Sunday evening and found a series of smiling people pronouncing that Benedict’s stay had been “a triumph”, a view which even the BBC did not attempt to contradict.

This seemed strange when, in the interim, all I had caught was Lord (Digby) Jones on Radio 4 that morning, complaining that the Pope had failed to say “sorry” for clerical child abuse. Did he or didn’t he? He expressed “deep sorrow”, and English is not even his second let alone his first language, so should we give the old boy a break? Or is he playing a deep and cunning game to shirk responsibility, like (say) Tony Blair on Iraq? Suspicion of such dastardly Catholic plots has been rooted deep in British consciousness for almost 500 years now.

During his stay, did the Pope and Mr Cameron exchange thoughts on the concept of deterrence? Religion is, after all, in possession of the ultimate deterrent: the prospect of an eternity of unspeakable torment, which makes Britain’s ability to vaporise some enemy cities with Trident missiles look decidedly puny.

Benedict’s present problem is that fewer and fewer people in this country believe in Hell, or in the upside alternative of Heaven. Just as ever more of us wonder whether the British nuclear deterrent is independent or useful in any meaningful sense, unless the occupant of 10 Downing Street is an obvious nutcase (as has been known).

Personally, while not a fervent believer, I recognise that Christianity is the rock on which the whole of western civilisation has been built. I greatly value the beauty of our ancient churches, the wonderful language of the King James Bible and the Prayer Book, and the splendour of a Latin Mass or an Anglican choral evensong.

All things which, ironically, current worshippers are doing their best to sweep away in the name of greater “relevance”. Even so, it is surely far from game over for Christianity. Religious faith has waxed and waned over the centuries. Who predicted the current resurgence of Islam?

Few atheists, I am told, adhere rigidly to their non-faith in the face of an impending plane crash. As human numbers continue to grow and the planet creaks ever more menacingly beneath the strain, surely religion can only benefit as Hell comes closer to hand right here on earth?

All of which may make the canny old Pope’s line on birth control just what Protestant cynics used to call it in my childhood: good business sense. May God bless or forgive him as appropriate. If He exists, that is.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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