Interfering with the anguished
When will the religious stop praying for (and preying on) our grief?
I WAS – hope – as saddened as anyone by the recent widely reported murder of a small girl in a seemingly idyllic Welsh village.* But as both an atheist and a former local newspaper reporter I was also appalled by an aspect of the coverage that nobody seems to be talking about. To be precise, the prominence given to local church activity, and the pretence that this was important – even to the villagers.
It follows an irritating pattern which, as a journalist, I find lazy and actually quite irresponsible, and as an atheist extremely insulting. The practice seriously affects the public impression given of atheists and the non-religious social majority in general, so maybe it is time to start challenging it.
I first started noticing it enough to study the phenomena during that terrible shooting rampage in Cumbria on June 2, 2010, in which a lone gunman – Derrick Bird – killed 12 people and injured 11 others before finally killing himself.
Freethinker readers, like other “committed non-religionists”, must have noticed not only a national media emphasis on how churches were “helping” but the seemingly endless sequence of “memorial services”. As Cumbria is almost on my doorstep I began to look further and quickly started noticing odd anomalies.
Almost immediately I found a list of tributes to the victims that a local radio station had invited friends and relatives to compile, and from this identified only one married couple – Jennifer and James Jackson – who could be fairly described as devout Christians or even regular churchgoers. To the rest, religion simply did not seem that important.
And I then made a more interesting discovery from those tributes. One victim – Michael Pike – was a committed humanist, and his family tried to tell the world that. On digging further, I discovered local TV interviews with his daughter (which sadly never made national TV) in which she eloquently explained this.
Furthermore, the family explicitly told various church bodies that they did not want Michael mentioned in their showy television “memorial services” as he would have found the idea of them praying for him inappropriate – even hilarious. I then heard his name prominently read out in at least two separate services featured on both regional and national television.
So the churches not only totally ignored the family but lied – blatantly – in pretending that this man (and possibly other victims whose families felt less able to protest) were part of some fictitious Christian “normality” which we dissident atheists are trying to disrupt.
Thinking back further, this fits in with a pattern I have seen whenever the national media descends on a small community following a tragedy. In my local newspaper career this happened twice – in both cases quite horrific murders which, to the national media, were perfect examples of “idyllic village rocked by senseless crime”.
In fact, in both cases the community had long predicted that such things would happen when local government services were farmed out to religious amateurs. In both cases, when national reporters asked help from local media they were told this but chose to ignore it.
From my own experience, I just know that when the reporters from the nationals, TV, and radio get parachuted in there is some unimaginative by-the-book editor instructing them to get the standard interviews with the local police and council leader and also “find a vicar – any vicar” in order to “find out how the community is coping”. There are several reasons for this.
First, the immediate families and neighbours of small town victims do not want to talk to nosy reporters – especially ones from outside the community. Second, even if they do they can say things that may not fit the required stereotype. Third, clergy are used to talking in public and easily available, so make easy interviews; to be brutally honest most (being so used to preaching to single figure congregations each week) are also desperate for the publicity.
To aid a serious look at the phenomena one useful study is Stan Cohen’s classic study of the “moral panic” around mods and rockers in the early 1960s. This gave the world not only his PhD thesis but a very readable book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, which explains some dense social theory in a straightforward way and puts forward some very useful ideas.
Cohen extensively researched newspaper reports and local government body records to get an extraordinary amount of minute detail – from which it soon emerged that there was very little factual detail in the media reporting. At a “common sense” level, of course, we have “known” that for years. Interestingly though, we still fail to spot it in contemporary reports when it should be as plain as the noses on our faces.
But in comparing that to the actual records he also showed how what we later learnt to call an “urban folk myth” had developed. He also cross-matched this to US research which had been done into how government deals with natural or industrial disasters. Then, to some extent, he drew on another social theorist – Erving Goffman – in using the idea of the disaster as a sort of theatrical performance in which, as events unfold, everyone involved falls into a “role” and finds they cannot “act” otherwise.
At the simplest level then, Cohen offers us an example of the way that the media stories of such events rarely fit the hard facts, and some encouragement to start looking for such facts ourselves instead of just going along with tabloid nonsense. At another level, he offers a model to understand how this myth is created and hangs together.
I’d argue that this – and not just the exhortation to get fact-checking – is his important gift to so-called sceptical atheists. Because while we endlessly regurgitate and repackage old arguments about the “truth” or otherwise of 2,000 year old codswallop we are allowing brand new myths to develop before our eyes.
More importantly, we do nothing as these new myths inform the way our communities handle disaster and in the process entrench religious privilege, as the “natural” place of the church in “comforting” (and sometimes “fleecing”) the victims is further established with each new crisis.
As I hope I’ve shown, a rigorous analysis of facts reveals how far the media and religious storytelling around such unfortunate events veers from the hard truth, which is that most people neither need nor want the church to get them through times we hope we will never have to experience.
Fair enough, there are some who genuinely do – and we should neither mock nor seek to prevent that. Certainly, many conscientious small town vicars get out to check if anyone wants counselling (and again fair play that they do) but when asked directly clergy I speak to admit most people do not seek religious consolation. Many must get annoyed at the butting in of churches, but their objections are not recorded and countless good stories of ordinary folk helping to keep a community together simply go untold.
That is the level at which we need to change things. We need to speak up, like Michael Pike’s family, and we need to be on the look-out for those that do, and to amplify those views however we can.
We also need to question – for example – the way local authority disaster plans automatically involve the church. Not just, say, in commandeering the church hall as a shelter for refugees or a first aid post, but in assuming that the local clergy are so important that they should have the emergency powers granted to police or military personnel or, if they request, be prioritised for medicine, food and power supplies.
You may laugh at that, but while part of a local committee on medical ethics during the swine flu epidemic a few years back I spent an hour trying to counter an archdeacon who thought that he and his colleagues should get first dabs with the doctors on any scarce antidote. I also spent about that time arguing that Mothers Union volunteers in a meals-on-wheels van did not need semi-automatic rifles to see off looters.
To return to my original point – we can and need to do more than mutter at the TV about this. Not just as some abstract, vaguely academic argument but because people in disasters have not got (and will not get) a fair chance to grieve without useless clergy crashing in, running things with government approval, and passing the hat around in the process.
As I hope my Cumbrian example shows, with just a little effort such stories can be told and such myth stripped away. I cannot honestly say if my example is the norm or an interesting exception, because I simply do not know of other efforts to find out, and lack the time to do it alone. But I would like to find out, and would be happy to join with others in doing so.
* April Jones was the murdered five-year-old. Her killer, Mark Bridges, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Her body was never found after her disappearance.
• Freethinker July 2013