Does religion really battle apathy?

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I posted this response to Martin Turner’s Lib Dem Voice article Apathy in the UK on the comments but I’m keen to see a response so I’m cross posting it here:

What he talked about was why he was backing religion in general (Greenbelt is a Christian arts festival), because it was a bulwark against the single most destructive thing in society: cynicism and apathy.

Really? Got any evidence for that? Or is it just based on “faith”?

The New Scientist has recently published a collection of 24 “Evolution Myths” one of the ones it debunks is that “Accepting evolution undermines morality” and in so doing it cites a recent study which demonstrates that most secular societies have lower rates of murders, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancies, etc. (pdf).

I’m willing to add another for further investigation: secular societies in general have higher turnouts than religious ones. Contrast the US (turnout: 47.5% in 2006) and Iran (turnout: 59.8% in 2005) with the Netherlands (80.4% in 2006) and Denmark (86.6% in 2007). (source: International IDEA)

I’m not claiming that religion is a cause of apathy, but I am certainly arguing that to claim the opposite is crass and without foundation. Some would even go so far as to say that to make such claims is an act of cynicism. Physician, heal thyself.

Another point I could make: religion is most active in London in the East, where the Christian People’s Alliance and TELCO are active, yet turnout there is lower than anywhere else in the city. Turnout in City & East constituency also increased less this year than the London-wide average (6.4% against 8.4%). Again, I’m not claiming religion is a cause of apathy, but where is the proof it is the cure?

26 thoughts on “Does religion really battle apathy?

  1. Hmm. Having a cause, any cause, religion, politics, football, steam locomotives, is an antidote to apathy. This is the extent to which Martin and Bragg are probably right.

    I’m not so sure they were arguing, this time, that religion makes you a better person except insofar as religion is good for being passionate rather than cynical. As is any cause worthy of the name, surely.

  2. Denmark is not a particulary secular society. The Lutheran Church of Dennmark enjoys a priviledged place in Dannish society and is more entrenched than our own C of E.

  3. Joe – I don’t think it is unfair to point out that Martin was specifically singling out religion (I can’t comment on Billy Bragg because I’ve only read this filtered version of his argument). He wasn’t making the wider point you are making and there is no need to say it for him.

    I certainly would agree that any cause is an antidote to apathy but on the face of it religion can often be as much of a cause of political apathy as an antidote to it. My computer room at home faces the national HQ of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (not many voters there) and there are plenty of other sects out there which actively encourage disengagement.

    On the other hand there are movements like the Quakers that have for centuries done the complete opposite. But here’s the thing: Quakers are famous secularists. So I accept that religion can play a role, but only really when religious practitioners take a deliberate decision to promote participation. That being the case, it is the religions – not me – that need a finger waggled at.

  4. I’m not sure it is religious groups that are responsible for fraud so much as cultural groups. For example, we seem to have a particular problem with fraud in Pakistani areas, but not in areas containing significant numbers of other Muslims.

  5. I don’t think the quote is saying that religious practice necessarily combats political apathy. It just seems to me there is a general concern that people these days lead very passive lives, and that anything which gets them out off their arses and interacting with each other rather than passively absorbing the messages from television entertainment is a good thing.

    For many readers of this blog, being politically active is what gets us out off our arses and talking to each other. the structure of party political activity helps us with this. We ought to realise that with the general belief these days that politics is nasty and only weirdoes would get involved with it, most people despise us for being active members of political parties in just the same way that many LibDems (judging by my experience with LibDem blogs) have a kneejerk “Hate, hate, hate” reaction to anyone who is actively involved with religion.

  6. I’m just noting the way if anyone says something vaguely positive about religion, there’s a usual crowd who come frothing at the mouth saying how horrible it is. Roman Catholicism in particular, of course, because it’s safe to kick the RCs (no-one will call you a racist in the way they might if you were kicking Muslims) and to some extent we still live in protestant England so Roman Catholicism is the Old Enemy. Contempt for Roman Catholicism very easily merges into contempt for Roman Catholics (“how can you go along with that stuff” “But it isn’t like you say it is” “Bah, froth froth, paedophiles, condoms, froth froth”).

  7. Keep hugging those old grievances Matthew. You’ve repeatedly laid this accusation at my door, ignoring the fact that if anything I spend more time ranting about the current state of the Church of England.

    I don’t believe you can actually cite a specific incident where a criticism of Catholicism has mutated into an attack on Catholics, although you did try that one on me for criticising Cristine Odone for, um, telling blatant lies.

  8. It’s not just you James. in fact I accept you’re generally a little more thoughtful on this than many others. Over the past few years I’ve gone from a position where my Catholic cultural background was one of those things I hardly thought about when involved in politics to one where I’m getting thoroughly pissed off at the stream of negativity. Mostly it isn’t stuff where one could say “this is outrageously anti-Catholic”, it’s stuff where one thinks “Hmm, this is a bit one-sided, it would be nice if someone were to put the other side, oh shit, I suppose as no-one else is going to do it that someone will have to be me”. There is a general feeling amongst Catholics these days that we’re always being “got at”, and I think that is because we don’t fight back and we’re safe to kick, so we take all the anti-religious frustrations – I don’t think it’s a coincidence that 9/11 seems to mark the start of when this happened.

  9. OK, Matthew, you said this: “if anyone says something vaguely positive about religion, there’s a usual crowd who come frothing at the mouth saying how horrible it is.”

    Let’s look at the comments in the LDV comment thread that kicked this off:

    Jo Christie-Smith: “I’m not so keen on the religion thing, but …” going on to be positive

    James Graham (as above)

    Laurence Boyce (here comes the froth surely): “Ah, so he wasn’t backing religion because he considered the various claims of religion to be true.”

    Alix (known pastafarian): “Good article. …”

    And various points about barcharts and campaigning.

    It seems to me that somebody said something very positive about religion and there was no froth, a token disagreement from Boycie, and constructive engagement from the rest of us.

    I struggle to see how this relates to your perception.

    What I do know is that it is common practise for charismatic churches in particular, and probably others, to tell their flocks to expect persecution at every corner. I have seen it happen. It is encouragement to see persecution when it isn’t there.

  10. It isn’t common practice amongst British Catholics to engage in any sort of persecution complex. Until recently we probably saw anti-Catholicism as something that was part of Britain’s history, now disappearing, only kept going by old-time Protestants like Ian Paisley. It’s only in recent years, and only amongst the ore media-aware of us who mix in liberal circles, that there’s been this niggling thing “why do they keep picking on us?”. I imagine Jews feel the same about Israel – a somewhat defensive feeling and a bit of a groan at the appearance of yet another “nasty Israel” article. I am sure many liberal Jews want to be positive about Israel, recognise it has faults, and have the same sort of feelings I do about jumping in to defend it when it comes under attack in liberal discussions – “Oh God, here we go again – someone has to do this, but I know what’s coming, I’ll get the usual accusations of being over-sensitive, and have to deal with the usual one-sided attacks which come flying when one tries to put the positive side”.

    Look, all I’m saying is that it’s the constant drip-drip of snide comments that’s wearying, not one big thing that can be pointed. Those snide comments tend to be things that rehearse well-known stereotypes, or use criticisms which are only really relevant to fringe evangelical groups.

  11. OK, so help me out here Matthew. How should I express my profound disagreement with what the Catholic church stands for in a manner that is not snide or wearying. Can you give me a suitable form of words, perhaps.

  12. Base your comments on what the RC Church actually says rather than on what you believe it says, and don’t attempt to impute reasons or hidden motivations for what it says beyond those it states itself.

    The same applies when having an argument with anyone with whom you disagree. It is always better to arrive at a point where you acknowledge each others’ positions, have established exactly where it is that you disagree and agree to disagree. This is much better than each side claiming the other side isn’t telling the truth and is only holding onto its positions because of some other secret motivation, and each side claiming it knows better what the other side’s real position is than that side itself. That way always leads to bitterness, antagonism, and dissatisfaction, because no-one learns anything and both sides go away hating each other.

  13. Well obviously I am not aware of any differences between what the church says and what I believe it says – that would be impossible. But if I am mistaken about something, I am happy to be referred by the other party to an authoritative statement that will clear it up.

    And when it is clear what has been said, surely it is fruitful to draw together themes, to work out what values these statements represent and so forth. I might say for example that I think the church has a medieval attitude to sexuality, inconsistent with human rights. (I would add that most Catholics I meet don’t share this attitude – which should make it even clearer that this is not a criticism of Catholics.) Anyway, isn’t this better than making a long list of positions that I disagreed with. Is that alright? There’s a fine line anyway between this and imputing motives.

    In any case while what you say is a good guide for talking to another person, the church isn’t talking to me and is only a 3rd party in any conversation I am having. The idea of having a standard of thinking only the best of all third parties to a debate is an interesting one, that will take some selling.

    Meanwhile, who is it that is throwing around accusations of hatred, and of something akin to racism?

  14. I’m not getting into this heavily, but you can hardly call the USA a secular society in this context other than in the formal sense – the motivation for voting is very largely motivated by religion (or lack of it).


  15. I wasn’t calling the USA a secular society – I was referring to it as a religious society akin to Iran! 🙂

  16. Yes, it’s mainly the sex issues where most people, liberals in particular, find the RC Church’s positions hard to tolerate. However, do you know what those positions are and the arguments used for them, or do you just rely on what you think they must be? Have you, for example, ever read “Humanae Vitae” which was the document which re-established the Church’s traditional position on contraception in the 1960s? It’s easily available on the web, and it’s the sort of thing you should be looking at if you want to seriously criticise the Church rather than just mouth off. Also try doing a web search on “theology of the body”, which will give some idea of what the previous Pope’s thoughts were on this issue.

    Note, I would say exactly the same to Catholics, particularly to some of the conservative sorts who mouth off about liberals in a sensationalist way. That is, they may not agree with those liberals’ conclusions, but I would like them at least to accept that liberals by and large are not evil people and arrive at their positions through rational thought which is based on sympathy for human welfare.

  17. I daresay I could read that sort of stuff. What do you think of it, does it represent your position? If not, if it is just detailed, thoughtful and wrong, there wouldn’t be a lot of point reading it, would there? If your point is that the church is sincerely engaging in theology with good intentions, I would agree that you are probably right, at least in most cases. Something similar could probably be said of Tories.

    Yet sincere and trusting engagement with a body of work which is highly morally deficient will tend to lead to wicked conclusions. Many probably are guilty, but nobody has to be, for mistakes to be built on mistakes over centuries causing great harm to humankind. Error is not in itself morally culpable – when you interpret “you’re wrong” as an attack on someone’s character you are projecting the idea which says that people who are mistaken on matters of fact deserve punishment. I suggest you’ll find that idea more often inside Christianity (more typically protestantism I suppose) than outside it.

    What would you have me do to “tolerate” the RC position on sex? What does toleration even mean here? The possibilities are to agree or to disagree. Sure, a disagreement can be constructive, or robust, or hostile. Perhaps what I need is some idea of how to have a constructive disagreement with an organisation that thinks I am disagreeing with God.

  18. “There wouldn’t be much point in reading it” is surely very much against John Stuart Mill’s argument for liberalism – that we need to be challenged by considering the arguments of those whom we oppose. Either it will help us appreciate our own position better by having it tested and confirmed, or we will be better if we really are proved wrong. Your position seems to be “I know it’s all evil, so I’m not going to be bothered to look at it”. Your last sentence here is typical of the snide comments I’ve been complaining about, because it is so representative of the misunderstanding of the Catholic Church’s actual position which liberals so often have.

  19. OK Matthew, there are 1001 hostile texts I could read, in addition to the many that I have read, and I was asking for something from you that would sell this particular one – some reason that this one should be anywhere near the top of the list. So far you’ve not suggested a single idea, challenging or otherwise, that I might engage with.

    If I have misunderstood the church’s position (that God agrees with it) in the last sentence of my previous post, don’t just say so, put me right. On what question does the church believe it disagrees with God? Or offer the help I was asking for – how does one go about disagreeing constructively with the church.

  20. This reminds me of the days when I used to be involved in internet discussions on Ireland, often with people from the USA who were extremely ignorant of the real situation but who form that position of ignorance sang the praises of the IRA who they regarded as heroic and justified freedom fighters. For my pains of trying to suggest there were actually arguments on both sides, and that they ought to take a more balanced approach, I was often written off as just a “British imperialist” or a “Paisleyite”, which was actually very far from my own position. I’m reluctant to get into the same sort of position where in attempting to argue with someone who is both extremely ignorant and extremely hostile, I am painted into the corner of it being assumed I am necessarily in full agreement with those of whom I’m saying “at least try to see it from their side”.

  21. Well, I’ve read “Humanae Vitae”, and I think it’s vile. As an ex-Catholic atheist, I was hardly going to agree with its theological assumptions, but I was genuinely taken aback by the silliness of many of the arguments, the internal contradictions within the document, and the absolutely reprehensible attitude to human life and dignity, not only of women but of children too.

    If Joe wishes to read it, it may well provide more grist to his anti-Catholic mill. I very much doubt it will soften his attitude towards the Church. As far as this thread is concerned, I can’t see any reason why his concise assessment of the Church’s “medieval attitude to sexuality, inconsistent with human rights” would be changed in the slightest by reading “Humanae Vitae”.

  22. OK Matthew, by all means leave it at that. Maybe I’ll have another go on TheologyWeb or the BBC Religion forums or some such place, although I find online discussion with complete strangers much less likely to be constructive.

    You are aware I am tempted to assume the worst from your reluctance? That you know your position is indefensible and that you have been psychologically manipulated into sticking up for your church, and to applying a double standard when judging it as opposed to any other organisation.

    And isn’t it a bit rich to talk about extreme hostility in a thread inspired by some claim of credit for religion in which the celebrity atheists of the local blogosphere simply let that pass in order to engage constructively with the topic.

  23. Well, yes, and when I was posting all that stuff “look, you may not like it, but it does actually happen to be the fact that there’s a big bunch of Irish people who are happy being British, and vote for parties whose main policy is remaining British, and they form the majority in the north-east chunk of Ireland”, one of the main responses was “you’ve obviously been pyschologically manipulated by the evil British imperialists”.

    Your suggestion that the Catholic Church arbitrarily decides things, then says its decision is the “word of God”, and expects all its members to obey them without thought is very far from the truth. It’s a position, commonly held by liberal snide-artists, which derives from a mixture of traditional British Protestant anti-Catholicism and modern supposition that the image portrayed by loud-mouthed evangelicals are what all Christianity is about. And, OK, some of the stuff said by people on the conservative wing of the Catholic Church doesn’t help, but contrary to your snide remark “how to have a constructive disagreement with an organisation that thinks I am disagreeing with God”, there are actually many people with a variety of views within the Catholic church and active discussion on these issues. Maybe you need to read some Aquinas on natural law or Newman on conscience to get a better feel. But I don’t have time to write long theological essays on the issue, particularly in a forum like this.

    As I keep saying, it’s not one thing you can pick out and say “that’s unacceptable” but the constant drip-drip of negative remarks and assumptions about Catholicism that seem standard amongst liberals. The image portrayed just doesn’t fit in with my own experiences and my own reading. I would like to be able to practice my own little cultural rituals, and appreciate the sense of community, and yes, morality, which membership of this organisation gives, without finding that so many times I look at the prime discussion group for people whose politics I share, I find abusive, negative and often lying attacks on this aspect of my being, and almost never anything positive to balance.

  24. If Joe reads Humanae Vitae, he will be better informed. If he finds it vile, fine, as I said it’s better to agree to disagree but know where your opponents’ position is. This is why I find much of, say, Ian Paisley’s criticism of Catholicism less offensive than that of many liberals. Paisley knows the Catholic position and puts forward strong decently argued points against it from a position of knowledge.

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