Tom Sutcliffe: Why we are all haunted by religion

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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.

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