A news story last week: "Religion can be good for your mental health." Professor Dan Cohen of the University of Missouri says: "Our research shows that the medical health of people recovering from different medical conditions appears to be related to positive spiritual beliefs, especially congregational support and spiritual interventions."
Yes, it is the silly season, otherwise the professor might not have got a look in. And this is not so much a news story as a reiteration of what is surely by now a truism. I could fill this newspaper by citing research that says the religious nexus – belief, churchgoing, performing altruistic acts – is psychologically beneficial. In his book Affluenza, the psychologist Oliver James identifies religion as an antidote to the "virus" of materialistic competitiveness: "... the scientific evidence has long been there: much to the consternation of social scientists, on average, regular churchgoers suffer less depression or unhappiness than unbelievers."
Smoking is bad for you, therefore most people I know have given up smoking. Religion is good for you... and yet most people I know think I'm very peculiar for going to church.
Cards on the table: I'm Church of England, and I go about once a week, preferably to a Communion service with the Book of Common Prayer. About 20 years ago, I found myself jealous of people who went to church, and then I thought: "Wait, I can go myself!" I was confirmed 15 years ago, and the process was a function of ageing. I wanted to avoid the fate of so many of my immediate predecessors, the baby boomers. They thought the point of life was to be in the Rolling Stones, and when they got to 35 and realised they weren't in the Rolling Stones, it was downhill all the way.
If you want to borrow a tenner off me, catch me coming out of church. "Serene" is not an adjective commonly applied to me, but I have moments of serenity in church or for a while afterwards. And I only ever give to charity, or act in a communitarian manner, within a churchgoing context. (Not much of the former, I fear, and I include in the latter such minimal engagement as hanging around for coffee after service). My wife knows it works for me, and when I'm under stress and behaving badly, she has been known to shout, "For God's sake, Andrew, go to church! Now!" Holidaying in Britain, I've seen her agitatedly leafing through a local paper, looking for a service for me to be directed towards.
My eldest son has noticed all this, and, the other day, he beadily remarked, "You want to go to Heaven don't you?" This did rankle, because my father (an atheist) thought the same of his own father who gave a lot of money to the church in the last years of his life. But I think my grandfather may have been influenced by observing his own father, who from middle-age onwards regularly mowed the lawn and did other odd jobs free of charge for a rather plush alms house/old people's home in his village. His idea was to ingratiate himself so he would be offered a berth there in his declining years, but having done all that work, he died before reaching the age of eligibility for the institution. So he had built his house on sand.
For the record, I do not want to go to Heaven. Actually, I'd better modify that just in case it's invoked against me at the Pearly Gates. I never think about going to Heaven, and have no conception of it. I go to church partly because I like going to church. I like the aesthetics of a good church, and a good service. I look for everything to be in the best possible taste – nothing low. My favourite service would be Choral Evensong at York Minster. One Sunday I turned up too late for that, and went over the road to a church called St Michael le Belfrey, which is, or was, low. The place was packed, and I had to say many excuse-me's and sorry-but-would you-mind's as I filed my way to an empty seat. I then glimpsed a man up near the pulpit strapping on an electric guitar, and I had to say my excuse-me's and sorry-but-would-you-mind's all over again as I filed directly out.
To me, a good church service is like a visit to a lecture, a concert and an art gallery combined, only with more point. Regarding the concert and art gallery elements, I am familiar with the line taken by such as Salman Rushdie: art is his religion. We can all agree that Rushdie is allowed to be excused conventional religion, but what puts me off revering art is knowing a few artists. It is the very neurosis caused by being in a "creative" profession that I seek to assuage in church.
So it is more than a matter of admiring the rood screen. I go to church in order to subscribe to the view that the world is (and I quote Michael McGhee, philosopher) "dependent, contingent, created". If that is the case, then your life has a purpose, and the purpose is to be kind. Do I actually believe that? I try to. Of all the clever and amusing things Boris Johnson is supposed to have said, I begrudgingly admit only one as fitting the bill. He said his religious faith was "like the reception of Magic FM in the Chilterns – it comes and goes". Me too. "But you're denying rationality!" people wail. "It's a scientific impossibility!" I might just mention some of the people a lot cleverer than my interlocutor who have faith, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the many eminent scientists. Or I refer them to a remark of Stephen Hawking's: "The actual point of creation lies outside the scope of presently known laws of physics."
Do I believe in a literal virgin birth and a literal Resurrection? Well, I am not equipped to make that leap of faith, although I wish I could. But if my friends ask me whether I "believe in God" I say yes, partly to start an argument about what can be rationally explained.
Most of my friends are left-liberal atheists, and they provoke me because I don't think they give religion its due. By and large, foreigners are allowed to be religious, but not their own social peers, and they can be very rude in asserting as much. An acquaintance was proposing a trip to York, city of my birth. He planned to visit the Minster, and I said, "It'll cost you £6, unless you go to a service – that's free." "I won't be doing that," he positively snarled, and it annoyed me that his atheism trumped even his parsimony. It's not as if religion isn't the basis of his political philosophy, whether we're thinking in terms of William Wilberforce, the Chartists, Octavia Hill, Gladstone, Seebohm Rowntree, the Webbs, Kier Hardie. Yes, what has happened is that the political philosophy arising from Christianity has displaced the actual Christianity – government has replaced God – but you'd think people would be a bit more respectful of the source.
On a local level, religion is still socially and philanthropically important. The best schools, apart from private schools, in my middle-class part of north London are run by Catholics and Jews, and they are the main practitioners of what David Cameron might call the Big Society. Given the utility of religion, I personally would find it heartening if more people came out and said they went to church or had faith. But in the case of people sympathetic to the C of E, there's usually a caveat, if you read the small print. (Melvyn Bragg: "I am still unable to cross the River of Jordan which would lead me to a crucial belief in godly eternity.") But are the stroppy atheists happy or even remotely content in themselves? By their fruits shall ye know them.
Andrew Martin's latest novel is 'The Baghdad Railway Club' (Faber)Reuse content