Press Column Saturday 04 November 2000

There are times when one feels the old, immutable certainties crumbling, that once held society together. For as far back as I can remember it has been front page news when an Archbishop of Canterbury says something obviously true, yet, when this one manages it, only the Daily Telegraph notices. "Britain now Ďa society of atheistsí Archbishop warns of loss of morality" ran their front page headline. Itís true that the quote "society of atheists" appears nowhere in his speech ó for one thing, he appears to believe that such a thing would be impossible; a true society, he says, canít be had when everyone does only what he thinks is right. Heís been saying this for years, and I have only just noticed that the obvious corollary is that a moral society exists only when its members are constantly doing what feels wrong. No wonder that preaching morality is an uphill task.

In any case, he did say that the mood in Britain today is one of "tacit atheism", which more or less justifies the Telegraphís splash. What is extraordinary is that none of the other correspondents picked up on it. Ruth Gledhill used instead the stuff about disasters in the same paragraph. Indeed, this was what had first caught the attention of Victoria Combe, who thought it worth about four hundred words on her second day back at work. Then she read it again to see what she had missed, and noticed a rather stronger story. Strange, the numbing effects that banality has on the mind. If she had been back at work for another week or two, she would never have noticed anything out of ordinary in the speech. The paper weighed in with a leader claiming that things were even worse than the Archbishop supposed. "A nation if real atheists would be much easier for Dr Carey to take on. He could adopt a proseletysing stance and illuminate the world of darkness. Instead, his tone is limp and sad, despite his assurances to the contrary.

"Atheists, like observant Christians, have to turn their minds to the way the world was created, what we are on earth to do, and how we should live. The worst of all worlds is the one that Dr Carey is presented with. It is a world in which most people believe in a ruling spirit of some fsort, but not necessarily one rooted in religion or requiring thought. .. Those who believe in Ö horoscopes, ouija boards and alternative medicine Ö are unaffected by whatever Dr Carey says: indifference is more frustrating than disagreement."

And the Telegraph should know: it runs a horoscope much larger than its weekly devotional columns, and features "The GP who looks for alternatives" on its womenís pages. But at least it thought the story worth noting. There was a faint murmur in the Times the next Monday, where Anthony Howard used it as a peg to suggest the Archbishop would resign; and Joan Smith mounted a characteristically vigorous defence of atheism in the Guardian. It was a great pleasure to see her agreeing with the Telegraphís leader column for once: ""I am not sure that Dr Carey is accurate in diagnosing a a surge I atheism. I am dismayed by how often people express views that resemble deism or even animism., suggesting disillusionment with traditional forms of worship as much as the notion of a supreme being."

All good clean fun; and there were three spirited letters denouncing her in the next dayís papers.

The Guardianís Roy Greenslade also devoted an entire

Morgan bounced back with a story saying that Rowan Williams is ready for disestablishment if he becomes Archbishop of Canterbury, and predicting in an off-hand way that Dr Carey will step down in two yearsí time, when he is 67. Isnít it a little early to start campaigning then? When I rang William Hill recently to find whether it was true you could get Dr Williams at 15-1 for Canterbury, I was told they didnít bets on the post "because it would upset the Catholics".

Perhaps the answer is for everyone to become a Buddhist instead. The Dalai Lama, visiting Belfast, made the front page of the Independent, flanked by a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, and Gerry Adams, who gave him a Celtic cross. This was one of those wonderfully surreal stories that makes religious journalism entirely worthwhile. In the Sunday Telegraph, Paddy Ashdown explained that in his Belfast youth, as the child of a mixed marriage, he had briefly called himself a Buddhist, but this only led people to ask whether he was a Protestant Buddhist or a Catholic one. It is unrecorded whether the same question was asked of His Holiness.

All this makes sense of another story, in the Sunday People, that the Duchess of York is converting to Buddhism, or has converted, or will in a future life, or something: the story was vague on the details and keener on the constitutional crisis angle: if the right busses ran over the right princes in the right order, she could end up as Queen Mother by divorce or something. All the story lacked was a constitututional expert to point out that by then, weíll all be buddhists. At least it will give the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury a solid reason to feel superior to the mere fourteenth Dalai Lama.

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