December 2013-February 2014

Two articles in the January Prospect caught my eye. In the first, a summary of a survey by YouGov on religious opinion in Britain reported that “Today there are almost exactly the same number of religious as non-religious Britons. And atheists easily outnumber believers in a personal God.” So far, so good. In the second, a report on the fresh flaring up of troubles in Northern Ireland, I read that “in 2012, Protestants ceased to be a majority and now form just 48 per cent of the population” [Catholics presumably having overtaken them].

So, how can these two statements be reconciled? Either:                                                                                                                                                                                     a) a) Northern Ireland is not representative of the totality of the United Kingdom, and has a dramatically different religious profile. (Yes, I realize that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but not part of Great Britain. YouGov did not explain what populations they used for their surveys.) But then I might have expected YouGov to explain any significant variations by geography; or                                                                                                                                                                                                                  b) People lied in their responses, in quite a consistent pattern; or                                                                                                                                                                          c) The terms ‘Protestant’ and Catholic’ have lost some of their religious connotations, and are just tribal signifiers.

It seems to me that the third explanation is the most likely. Now, I am not somebody who is hot on ethnocentric notions, since such cultural traditions and beliefs are not ‘inherited’, but acquired through parental and ‘community’ influence, and tribalism has no place in a pluralist democracy. Yet I can see some people attaching themselves to such ideas. For example, while I do not understand the concept of who or what a ‘Jew’ is (I get very upset if I am classified as a ‘Gentile’), the idea of Jewish culture is vaguely apparent to me, even though I find all the pseudo-history and mysticism a bit hard to accept. As Arthur Koestler wrote in Judah at the Crossroads: “Take away the ‘Chosen Race’ idea, the genealogical claim of descent from one of the twelve tribes, the focal interest in Palestine as the locus of a glorious past, and the memories of national history perpetuated in religious festivals; take away the promise of a return to the Holy land – and all that remained would be a set of archaic dietary prescriptions and tribal laws.” But Koestler believed that Jews were defined by Judaism, as a religion, while there are probably as many Jews today who would define themselves as agnostic or atheist as there are believers.

So have Protestantism and Catholicism gone along the same route? Are there now ‘ethnic’ Protestants and Catholics? Isn’t that rather silly? Or, with a slightly different spin, ‘Can you be an atheist priest?’, as Jessica Abrahams asked in the same issue of the magazine. I wrote a letter to the Editor on this question, describing my puzzlement at the information she was promulgating, but she failed to consider my observations worthy of publishing. Again, I don’t expect every editor to whom I write letters to print my submissions [is that really true? Ed.], but I would expect the Editor of Prospect – which is a fine magazine, though earnestly think-tanky – to have some opinion on the issue. I think we should be told.   (The regular Commonplace entries have been added.)                                                                                                                                  (February 28, 2014)

My research this month has focussed very much on the lead-up to Munich in 1938. I have accordingly posted a short piece on Mein Kampf, as well as started a newCommonplace file for 2014.                                                                                                                                                                                   (January 31, 2014)

We have just returned from a very enjoyable stay in California, seeing James and Lien and their three daughters – Ashley and the twins, Alexis and Alyssa. I have added a  postscript to Emily Davison’s Wig, and the December set of Commonplace entries to the 2013 document. A very happy New Year to all my readers! (January 1, 2014)

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