I notice that the vicar of the estate near Manchester where two policewomen were killed has lit two candles for them. Hmmm. I hope this might some help to the poor families of these young women, and I know from my own family that religious faith can be some consolation in moments of grief. Even though it’s not true.
That doesn’t remove some thoughts about the formulaic way that journalists deal with incidents like this. The local community is always shocked (Why would they not be ? What reaction is expected ? “Oh, well, just another murder round here: who gives a toss ?”). And journalists usually ask the local vicar for local colour. Now, church attendance in the UK is about 6%, I would guess much less than that on tough estates, and falling. Why ask the vicar, then, when other people you could approach – the local school head teacher, or the local councillor – will have a much richer understanding of local issues ? Or even, as a friend said yesterday, the check out assistant at Tesco.
The mention of vicars brings another medieval practice to mind – the way that those asked to comment whenever a disaster happens (a child dies in an accident, a soldier is killed on active service) say that the family are “in our thoughts and prayers”. Thoughts, OK, fine, but prayers ? Even if Prime Ministers and head-teachers were given to nightly prayers (again, hmmm), there is decent research evidence on the effectiveness of prayers and, er, they aren’t effective in the least. One of them found that people who were sick in hospital actually recovered less well when they learned others were praying for them. Becky Pugh, a journalist in the Daily Telegraph, last year wrote an article wondering (as a devout RC Christian) whether the survival of her sick child was due to modern medicine or prayer. She could have found out relatively simply, by contrasting the fate of children in the third world who only have prayer against those in modern secular countries that rely on medical expertise.
Terrible things happen in our world. Illness, crime, floods and earthquakes, accidents. There are often things we can do to help – disaster funds, training, social policy changes, engineering projects, vaccination campaigns. There are ways we can understand – criminology, biology, climatology. Sometimes there is nothing we can do except pick up the pieces. I’m no theologian, but I don’t see prayer as part of this response. Cold fish again, I suppose. Problem is, there is solid scientific research that shows prayer does no good, and sometimes does harm. Problem – should we tell people who are getting some consolation from it that it’s all tosh, because it is.
And most people know it. The statistics about how religious the British are clouded by controversy, and the answer often depends on how you ask the question. The 2001 census asked people “What is your religion ?” and 14.8% said none. In 2008 British Social Attitude Survey asked respondents “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion ?”, and 50.5% said none. Journalists need to learn to operate in this secular world. It’s where we are.