Photo by Martin Rickett
Artillery Row

More human than the humanists

Church attendance is on the rise among non-Christian, non-believing millennials

Evensong at Manchester Cathedral attracts a disparate crowd. There are people you wouldn’t expect, like a young mother, all blonde highlights and dry shampoo. Several older couples. A younger man, in jeans and a tweed jacket, with a rucksack at his feet. The air smells mildly of disinfectant, and I look around, as writers do, avoiding eye contact and making mental notes.

The cathedral is old and beautiful, a brooding mass of stone and slab, arch and point. It sits, a great Gothic hulk, amongst the gleam of modern Manchester, not far from Victoria station. It is a landmark and, during the pandemic, provided somewhere to head during my long and pointless lockdown-busting walks around the anaesthetised city. Naturally, I started going in. The epic space and the vast, numinal nave roof called me back.

Two years trusting the science created suffering unheard of in peacetime

I am one of many Millennials who, if not reconnecting with Christianity, are disconnecting from the brutal nihilism of the modern world. Church attendance amongst the under 40s is on the rise. A good chunk of those young men and women don’t even describe themselves as believers. Belief, I think, is almost irrelevant. Twitter and the twenty-four hour news-cycle is no place for a creature with a soul.

“Aha!” chimes in Professor Alice Roberts, and the various self-styled “humanists” who have spoken so regularly and listened so rarely in recent years: “There is no evidence people have souls.”

That is bollocks, of course. We are all more than a mere mass of chemicals. Every maladroit teenage declaration, every fretful sleepless night, and every group of mates laughing in a pub at a salty, unrepeatable joke is proof of that. There is no need, on this issue, to “trust the science”. I don’t care about the science. We’ve spent two years trusting the science, and created a car crash of suffering unheard of in peacetime.

It should be no surprise, perhaps, that the lure of Christianity, and religion in general, resonates most strongly amongst a subsection of the right. The Guardian’s bête noire Dr. Jordan Peterson has successfully repackaged Christian morality as a self-help guide for lost young men. Much of this is a kick-back against the dual, interwoven cults of victimhood and identity politics; in a sense, both dogmas tell their adherents they’re terrible, but at least Peterson offers a way out. Why bother cleaning your room if your immutable characteristics mean your life is ruined anyway? Embrace the Conservative Canadian to re-game the system — or change your pronouns, drape yourself in an activist flag and rage impotently at a system irrevocably gamed against you. The choice, for a straight young man seeking a better life, is a no brainer.

The spaghetti monster doesn’t come loaded with thousands of years of history

This isn’t about politics, anyway. Justin Welby in particular goes to inordinate efforts to prove how nice he is, and has therefore set himself up as conspicuously anti-Brexit, anti-Conservative and left-wing. Our parish churches may still just be the Tory Party at prayer, but Lambeth Palace has been New Labour in a mitre for years now. Happily, the heartbeat of the Christian calendar transcends all this. My godson recently had a charming christening, after which his family and friends got together for Shepherd’s pie and wine — whilst his 6-year-old brother grilled me on what shadows are made of. What’s not to like?

Critics often attempt to skewer the church, particularly the Catholic church, on the twin issues of restrictive social doctrine and sexual abuse. It goes without saying that any abuse is disgusting and unacceptable, and a grim feature of too many institutions, religious or otherwise. But young priests consensually sleeping with each other? If anything, it adds a piquancy. (A good mass is a theatrical experience, anyway; the flamboyant Soviet-sympathising Labour MP Tom Driberg was just as happy genuflecting before an altar as he was before a guardsman.)

I wouldn’t describe myself as a Christian, or even a believer, really. But nor would I describe myself as an atheist or agnostic. The literal truth of Christianity is by-the-by. “It would be just as logical to believe in a spaghetti monster in the sky!” roars Professor Richard Dawkings. But that is untrue. The spaghetti monster doesn’t come loaded with thousands of years of history: of love, and hate, and war and reconciliation, and wisdom and comfort and conflict and stupidity. That the Churches of England and Scotland, born in Regal acrimony, have managed to level this into something so benign is a reflection of our own social and political development. I believe the centre-left would call it “progress”.

I was christened a Catholic and understand the jumbled nature of my apostate position. These are not reflections on doctrine; the essence of these thoughts apply similarly to Rome. In this fractious, bruised world, I can’t help feeling that the regular worshippers at Manchester Cathedral, and in houses of God across this country, are more in touch with their humanity than many humanists.

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