Tom Sutcliffe: Why we are all haunted by religion

Share
Related Topics

What a striking choice of words the Archbishop of Canterbury made when he said, on Sunday, that he believed we were "living in a country that is uncomfortably haunted by the memory of religion". The Archbishop is not a completely unworldly man, and he's had some uncomfortable tuition since his ordination in the aggressive simplifications of the press. But I'm not sure he fully worked out what this idea might look like once it had been squeezed into a headline.

"UK haunted by religion, says Archbishop" was one representative example – which doesn't quite sound right, does it? Being haunted, after all, is not in current parlance, something anybody would greatly care for. "To be subject to the visits and molestation of disembodied spirits" reads one of the OED's definitions.

More to the point the word seems to blur the distinction between those disembodied spirits of which the church officially approves (Holy Ghost etc) and those which it finds faintly embarrassing or discreditable (spooks, exorcisable ghoulies etc). I take it the Archbishop meant to suggest that modern Britons had pushed religion to the back of their minds (or the bottom of their priority lists) but that it won't be ignored. It clanks its chains so that we can't ever quite settle. We claim disbelief, but when the sun goes down we start at every creak.

On first reading the line, I was inclined to agree. Yes we are haunted, I thought, and if only we could find a way to lay the ghost. "Molestation" is exactly right for the curious persistence of religious authority – the way that religious beliefs (that one is entitled to describe gay people as deserving of eternal torment, say) deserve exemption from common civil decencies (that one doesn't demonise people for how they are born, for example). And haunted is exactly right for the continuing presence of Bishops in the House of Lords, granted a parliamentary privilege by sheer historical inertia.

I also quite liked the implication - automatically there if you use the word "haunted" - that religion is dead but simply doesn't know it yet. Like the Bruce Willis character in The Sixth Sense, religion carries on about its business, unaware that it has passed over.

Thinking about it further though, I realised I agreed with the Archbishop in a different, less combative sense. Because it's surely true that religion, as a space for moral reflection and moral gravity, haunts even the most confidently secular person. And by this I don't mean the theory, advanced by Richard Dawkins among others, that evolution has shaped our brains to be inherently susceptible to religious myths (a tacit acceptance that there may still lurk a religious appetite in all of us, just as we have inherited an unhelpful passion for fat and sugar from our hunter-gatherer ancestors). I mean the sense that secularism or atheism has little to offer in the way of binding sacrament – that it can't draw a congregation in quite the way that religion can.

It may not be possible, of course, to have a sacrament without a sense of the sacred – but I think the Archbishop is right that the desire is there, even among those who wouldn't want God to bless the occasion. His phrase reminded me of Larkin's poem "Church Going" – which touches on the way a church provided a space in which "all our compulsions meet/ Are recognised, and robed as destinies./And that much never can be obsolete,/ Since someone will forever be surprising/ A hunger in himself to be more serious".

That's what we're haunted by, I think, but the fact that religion effectively monopolised that appetite for hundreds of years shouldn't mean it continues to be sole supplier in the future.

Has Obama taken tips from 'The Wire'?

Encouraging signs recently that the monolithic stupidity of the war on drugs might be showing structural cracks, as the Obama administration signalled a shift in strategy away from prohibition. Perhaps I'm being wishful in thinking Obama is preparing to dismantle this hugely damaging civic dogma but it may be significant that, during the election, he said The Wire was his favourite television series.

As fans will know, series three of The Wire centred on a senior policeman's unorthodox approach to drug crime in Baltimore. Behind the backs of his superiors, Major Colvin designates a couple of blocks of derelict houses as a free-fire zone, where dealers can trade without fear of arrest.

Street crime plummets in residential areas, drug workers get improved access to those who need their services and overworked officers are released from a futile treadmill of arrest and re-arrest. But when the media and politicians get wind, Major Colvin and his experiment are sacrificed for a good headline and electoral grandstanding.

Could it be that Obama has Major Colvin's words somewhere in the back of his mind? Asked what the answer is to the way drugs are destroying the inner city, Colvin says "I'm not sure. But whatever it is, it can't be a lie".

It helps if lawmakers have inside knowledge

When Jonathan Aitken was appointed to head the Conservative prison reform task force, Labour cited it as evidence that the Tories were returning to their "disgraced, scandal-ridden past" – a discreditable little spasm of political point-scoring which overlooked the fact that he was unusually well-qualified for the job.

Could there be any better preparation for an examination of what prison achieves and – more to the point – what it doesn't, than direct experience with what New Labour apparatchiks would probably call the consumer/supplier interface?

Indeed, so effective is a short spell in chokey at curing politicians of their illusions about the effectiveness of retributive justice that one is tempted to suggest that anyone involved in legislating on this matter should be required to spend a stretch inside.

I seem to remember it also deterred Lord Archer from repeat offending when it came to uttering wishful fantasies about the rehabilitative nature of prison.

It could be argued that you don't actually have to send politicians to jail to achieve the desired effect. They could just watch ITV1's documentary series Holloway, which offers doleful evidence of how many inmates need mending, as opposed to being re-broken in new ways. But I don't think that would prove as popular somehow. You could call this compulsory induction programme Short, Sharp Shock.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, 5 July 2015  

George Osborne says benefits should be capped at £20,000 to meet average earnings – but working families take home £31,500

Ellie Mae O'Hagan
The BBC has agreed to fund the £650m annual cost of providing free television licences for the over-75s  

Osborne’s assault on the BBC is doing Murdoch’s dirty work

James Cusick James Cusick
Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created