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Press: Sing about heaven — but don’t call it ‘religious’

26 May 2023


A LOVELY illustration of the toxicity of “religion” in contemporary culture comes from an interview in The Sunday Times which plugged Paul Simon’s latest release. The CD, or whatever we should call it, is called Seven Psalms. The piece describes the interviewer’s emotions: “Listening to Wait, the final song of Seven Psalms, it dawns on you that the whole album has been leading to this point. The realisation came to Simon, too, as he was working on the song, and it hit him hard.

“‘Wait,’ the first verse goes. ‘I’m not ready, I’m just packing my gear/ Wait/ My hand’s steady/ My mind is still clear.’ His wife duets with him in the final passage. ‘Heaven is beautiful/ It’s almost like home/ Children, get ready/ It’s time to come home.’ It ends with a harmonised ‘Amen’ and tolling bells. The effect is shattering; you can almost sense the drawing of a final breath.”

But, before we get that far, the interviewer has already made one thing entirely clear: “Seven Psalms is emphatically not a religious album. Rather, it investigates questions of belief and reflects on how these shape our attitudes to life and mortality” — so, nothing to do with religion at all, obviously.

Now, I don’t know whether this framing came naturally to the writer, or whether it was imposed as a condition of the interview by the record company. But, in any case, the message is clear enough: fewer people would buy the record if they thought that it was tainted with “religion”, which, I suppose, means Evangelical Christianity.

IN THIS light, The Guardian picked up on a World Values Survey, which found that the UK was one of the five countries in the world with the lowest belief in God, along with China, Japan, Norway, and Sweden (News, 19 May). I don’t know much about Norway, but Swedish religious attitudes are more complicated than that, as, in a different way, are Japanese.

Rather like Paul Simon’s PR machine, the survey seems to mistake attitudes towards Christianity for religious attitudes. This is understandable. “Religion”, as we understand it in post-Christian societies, is not a universal feature of human societies, but a particular arrangement of forces and desires that are themselves universal. When a Japanese family sift through grandfather’s ashes with their ritual chopsticks, or a Swedish family fall silent walking through a forest, are they being “religious”?

But the story was not at all a simple one, even for Christianity. One of the most interesting aspects of The Guardian’s treatment was that British confidence in churches and religious organisations had risen by nearly a third since 2018, from 31 per cent to 42 per cent, after decades of steady decline. “A possible explanation is the provision by churches and other religious institutions of essential social services such as food banks, social hubs, warm spots and debt counselling as the cost of living crisis has escalated,” wrote Harriet Sherwood.

WHAT other religious stories have been in the press? There was the National Conservativism conference in London, which further illustrated the horror or incomprehension with which the secular press regards explicit Christianity. I know, slightly, one of the organisers, Dr James Orr, and I go to some of the talks that he organises in Cambridge (where he is a member of the university’s Faculty of Divinity); so I know that some of the events that he organises are entirely theological in character. You might say that it is impossible to do theology without having an opinion about anthropology, which must, in turn, influence your politics; but this isn’t much help to a working journalist.

But the passions on display at the conference were entirely political. The animating mood of the conference seemed to be hatred of the present and past three Conservative governments, whether this was expressed by serving Cabinet ministers, such as Suella Braverman, or young men who hope to get there some day. God may well look askance at the record of all these Prime Ministers, but not for the reasons acceptable to that particular conference.

Take this passage from The Critic’s sketchwriter, Rob Hutton, about the political implications of a pro-life stance: “‘There are not enough babies being born!’ The National Conservatism Conference was, as it were, getting down to business. We had come to learn about the future of the right. It turns out to involve people having more babies. At last, we had found Boris Johnson’s policy legacy.”

Or there was Helen Lewis in The Atlantic: “Looking at the program, I noticed that one panel had two men named Sebastian and no women. The audience in the hall was perhaps four-fifths male. Both of these awkward facts underlined a problem with all these paeans to natalism: most women don’t want to hear them. . . In one of the best speeches of the conference — because it was daringly tethered to empirical reality — the Substack author Ed West observed that ‘the world’s most effective form of contraception is the London housing market’.”

This may explain why belief in hell is so much more widespread among the younger generations than their elders, according to the World Values Survey.

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