Thought for the day 

11 November 2007

40% of adults pray, says survey

“Britain is the most atheistic country on earth, thank God.” Thus Nick Cohen – capital “G” and all, quoted in “Pretty Straight Guys” some four years ago. Perhaps it is, I don’t know. Perhaps the fact that, as Mr Cohen goes on to say, British anti-clericals determined to écrasez l’infâme (in reality, replace theistic with atheistic dogma) have few targets beyond Thought for the day (“an insult against all rational discourse”, he asserts with astonishing chutzpah), or religious charities (see “More reasons not to give goats at Christmas” elsewhere on this blog) lends a shade of verisimilitude to his claim. However, a more substantial rebuttal is the results of a survey, carried out by the respected market research firm Taylor Nelson Sofres, suggesting that 40% of adults pray from time to time. According to the research, commissioned by the Christian development agency Tearfund, one in six adults pray once a week and one in four at least once a day.

It is instructive to look at a few transcripts of randomly-selected previous editions of Thought for the day. 30 October: Indarjit Singh talks about Guru Nanak, who was never impressed with the pursuit of profit for its own sake. Invited to invest money for a good return on capital, he used it instead to look after the sick and hungry. Invited to stay with a rich businessman, he stayed instead with a poor carpenter.

25 October: Anne Atkins talks about parents’ protective urges towards their children, and how they are torn between conflicting impulses of letting them see life and indulge their curiosity on the one hand, and shielding them from forces that they are not yet equipped to deal with on the other.

5 November: John Bell draws the parallel between the recent anniversary of the abolition of the trans-atlantic slave trade and the modern-day slavery into which so many women are duped. Women are lured to this country under false pretences and trapped in a sordid world of vice.

24 September: Rhidian Brook comments on the sad state of the financial system, riddled with heartless euphemisms (for “sub-prime”, read “council-housed and violent” is a typical example) and the irresponsibility of lenders allowing naive borrowers to overreach themselves. (On a related note, if or when the time comes for me to look for a mortgage, I would do well to bear in mind that it’s the lender’s job to extract as much money from me as he can; by the same token it’s my job to stop him.) “People […] come first before profits,” is the upshot.

22 October: The Rev. Roy Jenkins casts a querulous eye over the news that a B-52 bomber laden was flown half way across the United States, with the crew in blissful ignorance that they had nukes on board. The standard justification in defence of nukes is that they are a fact of life. We have to deal with the world as it is, not the world as we would like it to be, and plenty of bad guys have ’em (imagine General Pervez Musharraf making way for a Taliban-governed nuclear Pakistan *shudder*) so common sense dictates that we must keep a deterrent of our own. However, just as getting rid of nukes (a dream of many socialists – and, for that matter, anti-clericals) is counter-intuitive, the Reverend continues, so was much of the teaching of Jesus.

12 September 2007: In a particularly note-worthy talk, Jonathan Sachs, the Chief Rabbi, expresses fascination with books that cast doubt on religious faith. There is a strong link between religion and ritual, a far stronger link in fact than philosophy and science. When you lose ritual, you lose so much more besides.

While Thought for the day may be anathema to some, it is an important part of the Today running order, and if the survey quoted above is anything to go by, likely to be welcomed by far more than the seven percent (last time I looked) of regular church-goers. Its speakers usually reflect upon an issue of the moment and put it into context, or reflect on the moral or spiritual dimensions surrounding something in the news. Religious traditions have evolved over the centuries; they have been thoroughly tested in anger and in practice and have survived. It was not for nothing that Lenin and Stalin tried to eradicate the Church in the Soviet Union; that Hitler made an effort worthy of Erasmus to make the German churches under the Third Reich totally subservient to the godless state.

Mr Sachs’ remarks on ritual have relevance to all believers and non-believers who value the integrity of the family. A one-time French colleague of my father was invited to work in the United States for his company. He went to check it out, and said, non, merci. The reason? The concept of the family meal has fragmented. Eating over there has become, for many, so utilitarian an activity that families hardly ever gather round the dining table each evening for a collective meal. This French-man valued the family, and the ritual of the evening meal, and he feared that as his kids made friends with the locals and became exposed to their habits, the corrosive influences of American kids would undermine the unifying sense of ritual that helps keep the nuclear family intact.

As a youngster, it was always at the meal table that my parents talked with me about how my day had gone, how I was doing at school, and what problems I had encountered. Take away the ritual of the family meal and you take away a chance for the family to live up to its name.

Also, the Christian insistence on monogamy and lifetime marriage may well have been motivated largely by practical concerns. Wedlock always kept families together, and in times past individuals would put their duty to the family unit, and to their children, above their own personal desires. The 20th century and feminism may have liberated women from what they saw as the shackles of the patriarchy; it also ushered in an era of family breakdown, social deprivation as the extended family networks disintegrated, and single-parent households where many children are bastards and the support that many over-stretched mothers desperately need is nowhere to be found.

Thought for the day should be left alone. It is not religious indoctrination; instead, it allows speakers the opportunity to remind all of us about our moral duty. As for Mr Cohen’s claim that it is “an insult against all rational discourse”, I suppose that by implication, unlike Guru Nanak he would have favoured the conventional capitalistic reaction; unlike Anne Atkins he would just let his kids expose themselves to all manner of perils; unlike John Bell he would support the trans-atlantic slave trade; unlike Rhidian Brook he would let rapacious lenders do their worst; unlike the Rev. Roy Jenkins he would be happy with a nuclear arms-race, and unlike Jonathan Sachs he would spit on the grave of the family. This, all, and the devil take the hindmost. Pity, because in so many other respects a lot of what Mr Cohen says makes a good deal of sense.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Liverpool, Thursday 28 September 2023