Press Column

One of the most touching superstitions of our age is the belief that church schools somehow indoctrinate people in a way that other schools do not or cannot. Personally, I can think of no more thorough inoculation against religious belief than an education at one of our great public schools, especially those founded for the sons of the clergy. But, as we have seen with the fiasco of Alpha on television, it suits both atheists and their enemies to pretend that there is something uniquely seductive about religious belief. A particularly fine example of the confusions into which this reasoning can lead people came from the Observer’s agony aunt, Margaret Cook.

A reader wrote to her to say she was thinking of sending her three-year-old to a church school, though herself an atheist. Dr Cook replied, in part: "Of course, religious faith has nothing to do with goodness and morality … You are making the worst possible selection in the church school … Many devotees of specific religions teach exclusivity and intolerance. They probably spend more time on mythology than is useful, and history in particular is taught from a seriously distorted angle."

This really deserves a Porteous Wood award for epitomising all the faults it ascribes to "religion". Any thoughtful atheist is going to read this stuff and feel it is part of a media conspiracy to make them look ridiculous. It’s like having Ian Paisley held up as a typical Christian. Mind you, I find that I have stopped believing in religion myself completely. I just can’t suppose that the word means anything, since it covers such an immense diversity of behaviours and beliefs. There was a particularly worrying example of this when I plugged the term in to the Financial Times’ search engine, which indexes papers from all over the world, and for some reason got a page full of "religious" stories form Malaysia. Some were recognisable, such as the man who wrote protesting about the biased tabloid press coverage of the Balkans: "In Malaysia, such portrayals of the ‘hedonistic Albanian AKA Muslim rebels’ killing policemen, husbands of Orthodox-Christian Macedonian women, are an example very old psychological propaganda propagated by unfriendly forces within Malaysia, and are meant to shred the social and political fabric of the country" and asked "What else am I supposed to deduce from it?" One assumes that the newspaper he complains of is Chinese-owned, and so not at all Muslim. It’s fascinating to see "hedonistic" used as a term of moral oppobrium, though it is not a quality normally associated with Albanians.

Then there are earnest letters about an Islamic currency, which is meant to rival the Euro and the dollar, but also stories in which religion is used in its western sense, as a synonym for "philosophy" or "mission", meaning in both cases, the expression of a company’s desire to make as much money as possible.

The bank holiday meant that a lot of long stories which had been held for ages finally managed to get into the papers: the Guardian had a report on the Church of England going broke, and the Daily Telegraph had a profile of Vivienne Faull. This was of course more about her chances of being the first woman bishop in England than about anything else; it had a couple of very nice stories, including one of an 84-year-old stalker, "although the poor fellow couldn’t move fast enough to chase me." But the thing that really amazed me, read in conjunction with the Guardian’s story, was the quiet acceptance, high up in the story, that there will be a full-scale schism when the first woman bishop is consecrated. I had always supposed that the lawsuits, when they come, will be about who gets which churches; but at this rate, the fights will be about which side of the schism can unload the most churches on the other, and the greatest number of pension liabilities.

The upmarket papers may wonder what religion is for, but in the News of the World the eternal verities trundle on. It’s just that nowadays they are illuminated. "Oh Come all ye unfaithful" read the headline on this week’s dirty vicar story. "Love cheat vicar dumps second wife to sin with mum of three.". The language was resolutely traditional: "Yea, verily, bed-hopping vicar Paul Hinds has cheated on his second wife — just like he did on his FIRST" but the layout was full of really gorgeous computer-generated typefaces.

Elsewhere in the world, though, odder things happen. An American artist was reported by the Sunday Telegraph to have spent £140,000 of his own money on a chapel for dogs: it is not clear whether they tether their owners at the door when they go in. And the Hindustan Times carried a story I still find hard to believe, about a man who buries paupers. "Kalim Pathan lives for the dead. Though, by profession the 50-year-old is a commission agent at the Indore district court, that's just to take care of his family's mundane needs. The better part of his life has been spent cremating or burying abandoned and rotting corpses."

He started this after a neighbour died, too poor to be buried, and his son later committed suicide after being taunted that his father had had to be buried by the charity of strangers. And, with his two sons, he has been doing it for twenty years, burning or burying abandoned bodies according to the rites of their religions. "The trio do not accept any donations, except for the hearse … After all these years of dedicated work, they are now feeling the pinch since they are not financially well off.

"In fact, Kalim has had to sell property, his goats and even his watch. Though the Samiti's bank balance is a mere 300 Rupees, that hasn't disheartened him. His son Karim says, ‘People think it is madness or idiocy but we are not deterred’."

I suppose that might be described as a purely religious vocation — so it is a nice touch that the story nowhere mentions what religion the Pathan family subscribe to.

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