Hatches, matches and despatches

By skepticlawyer

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Roadside ritual

Not long after I arrived in Oxford, a student cyclist was killed at The Plain, near Magdalen College. There was the usual to-ing and fro-ing, comments about how dangerous the roundabout there is, how everyone is almost always in the wrong lane. A few days after the death, in addition to the (now usual) bunches of flowers, candles, photographs and ribbons, a bicycle, painted white, appeared, chained to the nearest available lamp-post. The tyres and chain had been removed, and a sign stated: ‘a cyclist was killed here’. It was an arresting image, far more striking than the flowers and photographs. Among other things, it forced motorists and even buses to slow in what could be seen as a gesture of reverence.

Some time later, I learnt that ‘ghost cycles’, as these roadside memorials are called, are now common in the UK and Europe. A photograph of one (from just outside Gray’s Inn, in London) is included in this post. The phenomenon is sometimes tied to political commentary — about road safety, say, or as part of an expectation that people should drive with more care — but more often than not, the ghost bike is like a Japanese or Roman roadside shrine, there to honour and memorialize the dead.

Of course, the flowers, photographs and candles are a relatively new phenomenon, too, at least in Britain. That sort of thing was for Italians and Spaniards, the argument once went — Catholics, who go in for drippy memorials and ostentatious wreaths at funerals — although in reality, the roadside shrine is much older than Catholicism.

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new –
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Religious orientation

Eric MacDonald — one of my favourite writers — has written a series of outstanding posts engaging with the arguments of philosopher Philip Kitcher. Eric is an atheist now, but he used to be an Anglican vicar, so he’s theologically literate and insightful. He argues (partly following Kitcher) that religion is more than belief; it’s an orientation, but that orientation gets entangled with doctrine in (often) socially destructive ways. Kitcher wants to preserve the orientation religion offers, with its community and comforts, while doing away with the empirical truth claims (monotheistic) religion makes:

We have come upon Kitcher’s work elsewhere on this site (here, for example, or here, and here), and I have a great deal of sympathy for what Kitcher is trying to do. He suggests that what he calls militant modern atheism (or what Gutting is calling scientific atheism), while true as far as it goes, does not provide a living substitute for the functions that religion performs for people. It does not provide community, for example. It does not provide for the ordered celebration of the stages of life, such as birth, adulthood, death, and grief; nor does it provide an intergenerational community in the midst of which to celebrate important events, and to be supported not only by the living community, but to feel a sense of continuity with those who have gone before. It does not offer a group narrative into which one can fit one’s own narrative.

Eric offers some provisional thoughts on what atheists and humanists without religion might want to think about when it comes to managing people’s need for communal celebration of ‘hatches, matches and despatches’. Eric is Canadian, so may experience different manifestations of religiosity in his country. By way of contrast, I want to describe (and perhaps elucidate) how people approach these communal events in what is becoming a post-Christian Europe.

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative?

Whither religion?

I studied at Brasenose, which is a very strong law college, but it also has another historic strength: classics, especially the Romans (the Hellenists tend to go to Corpus Christi). In conversations with various of the Romanists, it was often pointed out to me that Christianity is foreign to Europe, a Middle-Eastern import that requires either institutional support (as in Ireland) or utterly cack-handed persecution (as in the former Soviet Bloc) in order to survive. Without either or both, it will die, the classicists argued, and Europe would revert.

‘To what?’ I asked, incredulous.
‘Paganism’ they answered, unselfconsciously.

There were two things going on here, as I learnt very quickly. First, they did not mean (at least not usually) the dippy organised paganism that is common in much of the UK. One thinks of the ‘Druids’, who make annual use of the Mesolithic Stonehenge. Let’s just say the link between Stonehenge and historic Druidism is not even tenuous. It is non-existent. One classicist dismissed Britain’s modern druids as an instance of ‘fluffwicca’, a term that I think deserves wider currency. Second, they did not think that Europe would become secular, or atheistic, or skeptical. It would remain religious, perhaps even profoundly so. The essence of their argument was that monotheism would not last, being foreign, but that religion would, and that Christians and atheists alike simply had to deal with that reality.

At first I was skeptical, because long habituation to even very foreign customs–and I admit that Christianity was very different from most of the religions of the pagan Roman Empire–can make them seem native. Following another classicist’s recommendation, I then read Deepak Lal, encountering for the first time his argument that languages provide cognitive maps, which then feed into religious frameworks. Religions that demand a holy language (like Islam does with Arabic) will never ‘take’ in Europe, while loss of linguistic access to narratives and texts (like the Bible or saints’ lives) can also sever the cognitive link with the past. People (including Richard Dawkins) mourn the loss of the ability to understand Shakespeare or the King James Bible, but like most imperial languages, English is in the process of breaking apart, as Latin once did, producing mutually unintelligible linguistic children.

Then–on another matter entirely, while policy wonking for the Tories–I spent a chunk of my time considering the implications of the 2005 Eurobarometer Poll. There is a great deal in this survey, but the most important findings are summarized in the chart below (click to embiggen; the ‘don’t knows’ have been excised for visual clarity).

In brief, blue represents traditional monotheism (either Christianity or Islam), red represents the various permutations of paganism (‘belief in a spirit or life-forces’), and green represents atheism. More recent national surveys have revealed the same trends, with monotheism in retreat, paganism in the ascendant, and atheism remaining steady. Of course, there are statistical outliers. France, with its long tradition of laïcité, has a large number of atheists relative to both pagans and Christians; so, now, does Ireland. The latter, of course, is a much more recent phenomenon (emerging largely since 2005) and is attributable to the Irish Church’s surfeit of sex scandals and criminal cover-ups. In other words, it’s historically contingent.

After my policy wonking stint, I encountered further research applying the mathematical modelling used to map language extinctions to religious belief. It indicated the same precipitous decline for traditional monotheism (the relevant studies, including a good piece in Nature, are collated and attractively discussed here).

Large numbers of people still haven’t ‘got’ those 2005 poll results, or the more recent mathematical projections. Here is the BBC, opining that Estonia is ‘the least religious country in the world’, which of course is rot. Look at Estonia, down there at the bottom of the Eurobarometer graph. If one adds 16 to 54, the result is 70. That, in anyone’s language, is a comfortable majority for the religious.

This failure to see that paganism is a religion (or, more accurately, religions) is baffling, and seems to represent a sort of mindblindness to the diversity of human religious experience and practice. People who write articles like that need to ask themselves if they habitually write Japan off (to pick one example) as an ‘atheist’ nation, because it isn’t monotheistic, and is (largely) an instance of modern paganism.

Even as careful a scholar as Kitcher universalises monotheism, producing passages of arrant nonsense like this:

Religious people who exemplify the belief model are thus evidentially dependent on the traditions in which they stand. That is not yet to deny them the possibility of knowledge, since all of us are dependent on others for virtually all of what we know. The trouble is that the symmetry found in the appeal to religious experience, the use of phenomenologically similar episodes to support radically incompatible conclusions, is preserved when we turn to the grounding of belief in religious tradition. The Native American who is convinced of the existence of ancestral spirits, and the Australian Aboriginal who talks confidently of the Dreamtime, base their religious professions on similar ideas about the past to those that ground the doctrines of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Once, long ago, there was a revelation, and it has been transmitted, with integrity, across the generations to the present. There is no reasonable way to break the symmetry, to declare that one — or some — of these supposed processes of revelation and accurate transmission has matters right, and the others are sad examples of primitive confusion.

There was no revelation in either Greek or Roman paganism and there isn’t one in any Aboriginal mythical narrative of which I am aware. I don’t know if we have any Native American readers (we certainly have a goodly number of Aborigines), but I will eat my hat if there was a revelation with doctrinal implications in any Native American religious tradition. Kitcher doesn’t seem to grasp the Roman view, for example: the multifarious religions of the Empire were all equally true to the general public, equally false to the philosopher and equally useful to the magistrate.

Paganisms don’t do doctrine, or revelation, or belief… they do ritual. They have practices. They also evince some of the orientation of which Kitcher speaks when it comes to the monotheisms. Often, this pagan orientation values oaths in particular. The Roman law of contract is an outgrowth (a very obvious and direct one) of the severely contractual relationship Romans had with their Gods: dono, dabis goes the formula: I give, you do. If you do not do, I do not give is sometimes added, explicitly. It is something to get one’s head around, the idea that a deity can engage in breach of contract.

Morality proper, however, is shunted off to some other discipline (typically philosophy in more literate societies), which is why Roman and Greek and Chinese religious writers are distinctly uninformative when it comes to proper behaviour, while Stoics and Epicureans and Hedonists and Pythagoreans and Confucians and what have you are always banging on about how one ought to live one’s life. Only with the coming of Christianity did philosophy cede (under the burden of considerable pains and penalties, as Lorenzo discusses here) the ‘how shall I live?’ question to theology.

It may be that philosophy has to take on its ancient role once more, as the monotheisms lose ground. I’ve heard it said in skeptical circles that theology is just a back-door way to let atheists believe in God, but that is unfair to paganism, which is much more sophisticated than people give it credit for. The opposition between order and chaos, combined with the realisation that both order and chaos have serious claims on our imagination, neither all right nor all wrong, is a core aspect of classical paganism. It was in the science fiction series Babylon 5 that this opposition was made palatable for a modern audience, and as depicted in that show revealed writer J. Michael Straczynski’s interest in comparative religious scholarship, especially the work of Norman Cohn.

However, that still leaves aside most of ‘how shall I live?’, a question of some urgency when many people are struggling to conceptualise morality:

The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, which Smith and company recount in a new book, “Lost in Transition,” you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.

When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.

“Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,” Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

New (old) practices

In Paris, young lovers affix padlocks to lamp-posts and trees on a bridge, inscribe them with their names and then throw the key into the Seine, symbolizing their commitment to each other. The practice spreads: to Rome, to Moscow, to Prague (the photograph below is from Moscow). Rome’s city council removes the locks early one morning, only to find them rapidly reinstated. Lamp-posts collapse under the weight. This goes back and forth for a while. Finally, Mayor Gianni Alemanno gives in, supplying dedicated posts for the observance of the ritual. The bridge in question? The Ponte Milvio, which Tacitus tells us was a haunt for Rome’s teenage lovers to make their pledges in his day, and was later where Christian Constantine defeated Maxentius in AD 312. The bridge, it seems, has reverted to Tacitus’ teenage lovers, in a form of religious adverse possession.

In Cumbria and Yorkshire and Aberdeen and Snowdon, and then elsewhere, new parents (and others) hammer coins (a found coin, I am told, is best) into ‘wishing trees’ for good luck. One man remembers being told as a child–upon approaching a wishing tree in Loch Lomond–that he must not take one of the coins, because he will ‘steal’ for himself the child’s illnesses the coin is designed to avert.

See a penny, pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck
See a penny, let it lay, you’ll have bad luck all the day

The walls of Peckham’s looted Poundland are spontaneously covered with sticky notes expressing affection for the area in the wake of the England riots. Annoyed at persistent disrespect for British war dead and unexpectedly placed in a position to do something about it, the residents of Wootton Bassett spontaneously develop their own ‘repatriation ritual’.

Ghost bikes. Roadside shrines. Solar lanterns on children’s graves. The robing of our life milestones as destinies.

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

[The poem featured in this piece is Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’, written in 1955 and eerily prescient.]


  1. Adrien
    Posted September 24, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    That’s without the chord that joins her to the past.

  2. Posted October 22, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Since Europe is a kindler, gentler place, no concentration camps for the aged, just tax policies to stop them “wasting” housing. The intergenerational struggle over the welfare state goodies is likely to get more intense as the debt-demographic numbers get worse.

3 Trackbacks

  1. By Skepticlawyer » We’re on the radio… on October 15, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    […] will be the definitive commentary on Eatock v Bolt (by Legal Eagle), a follow-up from Lorenzo to my piece on Europe’s resurgent paganism and a piece of mine on why we ought to be harder on hypocrites, as David Cameron stands back to […]

  2. […] On September 18, I published a piece on the religious transformation currently going on in Europe, pointing out in passing that […]

  3. […] a note. ‘Made you Look? Made you Smile?’ is one I liked. It reminded me of some of the reemergence of pagan ritual happening around Europe I wrote about last September: like the lovers’ lockets and ghost bikes, it has its own […]

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