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Press: Cats scratch the atheists’ itch, says study

10 January 2020


Terry Pratchett, pictured in 2010

Terry Pratchett, pictured in 2010

I OFTEN think that the best and most influen­tial writer on Anglican theology since C. S. Lewis was Terry Pratchett, even though he was an atheist. Obviously, he had a much greater impact than anyone who wrote as a Christian, or even as a programmatic atheist. But the mil­lions of people who bought his books were also introduced to a profoundly English Anglican sense of the world as a cosmic battleground between evil and decency.

Decency rather than good. He’s brutal about the people who believe that they are good, and some of them are truly horrible fan­at­­ics. His heroes are simply trying to do their best, but this invariably involves loving most, at least, of their neighbours. On the other hand, he has some really frightening portraits of evil as privation — most notably, I think, Teatime, in Hogfather.

And then there are the cats. The elves, who are among his wickedest — which is to say most unfeeling — creations, have a way of look­­­­­­­ing at the world which is shared with earth­­­­­ly cats: “A look that a microbe might en­­counter if it could see up from the bottom end of the microscope. It said: You are nothing. It said: You are flawed, you have no value. It said: You are animal. It said: Perhaps you may be a pet, or perhaps you may be a quarry. It said: And the choice is not yours.”

A feline pantocrator would be a prospect more frightening even than the angry God of the Old Testament. No cat would explain why it had clawed you, or what you might do in fu­­ture to avoid being clawed again. This is why it is hard to credit the story that The Times re­­ported as the most significant religious news of the week: a study from the United States sug­gest­­­­ing that atheists were more likely to be pet owners than regular churchgoers.

The difference — 0.58 of a pet — was appar­ent­­­­ly made up entirely of cats. Other pets were evenly distributed across the theological spec­trum, but cats are much more likely to be owned by people who don’t go to church.

Ac­­­cord­­­ing to the author of the study, Professor Samuel Perry, of the University of Oklahoma, the explanation lies in the sociable aspects of pet-owning: “We own pets because we love their company and the special inter­action they provide for us. In some ways, pets are actually substitutes for human inter­action. . . People who are heavily connected to a church or faith community already have plenty of social inter­ac­­­­tion.”

This would make more sense if the animals preferred by atheists were dogs, i.e. pack ani­mals. Cat social interaction is much less fre­quent and predictable. On second thoughts, perhaps that is the answer. Psychologists tell us that intermittent reinforcement is much more effective in getting people to repeat behaviour than something that just works. That is one reason that gambling is addictive.

The Times gave over a front-page column and a leader to this problem, and was re­­warded with a letter about the Revd Robert Hawker, the 19th-century Vicar of Morwen­stow who was supposedly accompanied by his nine cats when taking services. I don’t believe this for a moment. How could you get nine cats to agree about anything? On the off-chance that the sto­­ry is true, though, the General Synod should invoke his supernatural aid before every diffi­cult discussion.

ANNE ATKINS had an article rather in Pratchett’s spirit in The Daily Telegraph about the Revd Jonathan Fletcher (News, 3 January), whom she had known when he was a curate in Cambridge: “Charismatic; tall, dark, hand­some; with a personality so powerful I instant­ly wanted him to like and approve of me. He didn’t. (Approve . . . though it’s possible he liked me.) Not being an Evangelical — nor male, nor public-school educated — I could never have counted for much.

”Jonathan was domineering, forceful, misog­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ynistic. But he could also be generous, fun, inspirational. More to the point, he preached the Christian faith, promoted holy living, encouraged others. How could someone of sincere convictions and high moral stan­d­ards make his friends strip naked before thrash­­­­­­ing them?. . .

”There is no proportion, no simple common sense here. It became more important to pun­ish young men for masturbation (what could matter less?) than to nurture confidence, en­­­cour­­­age kindness, rejoice when they fell in love or succeeded in their careers. . . And nothing outside the Church mattered: no brain surgeon or violinist would win people to Heaven.”

AND so back to The Times, which had an illuminating obituary of Lord Williams of Elvel, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s step­father.

He was, in his youth, an accomplished cricketer, a successful merchant banker, and, later, a feared head of the Prices and Incomes Board and a widely admired biographer. If his later life was a failure, as the obituarist implied, this was because he had only a seat in the Lords, and not the Cabinet post that he thought he had been promised by Tony Blair. It’s a glimpse of the standards against which, one assumes, the Archbishop measures himself.

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