This house shouldn’t regret organised religion

NEAL POINTON tells us why we reached the wrong conclusion in Thursday’s Union debate.


In typical hypocritical fashion, Cambridge students on Thursday took to declaring their ‘regret’ for ‘organised religion’ in what constitutes the university’s most religious non-religious organisation – the Union Society.

We live in a society of declining church membership, but in which 8 in 10 of us claim to identify with a religious group. We all have beliefs – not necessarily about the existence of God – but about things like liberty, justice and whether Robinson actually counts as a real Cambridge college.

But it’s too modern


One of the fundamental issues of the debate was deconstructing the divide between the sacred and the secular in determining what counts as ‘religious’ belief; the proposition supported an overly narrow definition.

First, as Fr Andrew Pinsent – from the Faculty of Theology in Oxford – pointed out, ‘organised religion’ is not different from ‘religion’ per se.  All religious behaviour is organised to some extent. Religion is about collective beliefs, and all collectivism is to some extent organisational.  There is no ‘organised religion’ – as compared to ‘religion’ in general – to regret.

Secondly, and apparently most difficult for the proposition to grasp, not all religious behaviour is that of the Catholic Church.  In an attempt to rally student anti-theist sentiment, all four proposition speakers spent time attacking the Church as the primary cause of war and pretty much all suffering throughout history.

This was a red herring. The reality is that ‘religious wars’ – in the churchy sense – actually account for just 7% of all recorded wars and 2% of deaths.

Yes, the Inquisition happened – 3000 deaths – and yes the Crusades happened too – perhaps up to three million deaths. But let’s get some perspective. In the First World War alone, 35 million soldiers died fighting a secular war.

There is good reason to be thankful for organised religion.  Church-goers also donate more to charity, Muslims giving on average £371 a year, Jews £270 and atheists a mean £116 per year, with four in ten atheists not giving at all.

War-mongering CICCU-affiliated students of Cambridge.

But this debate about whether organised religion has had a net benefit or net cost to society is really beside the point.

The real virtue of the opposition’s argument was in showing that sacred beliefs and the secular beliefs of other institutions are really part of the same human impulse to believe in something.

According to the opposition, to have religion is simply to have belief.  Singing ‘The Red Flag’ at this week’s Marxist Society meeting can be as religious as singing ‘Let It Be Jesus’ at STAG on a Sunday morning, although I expect with more champagne.

A shrine to Lenin.  Property of the Marxist Society.

Following this argument, Melanie McDonagh, a former Union President, drew attention to the hypocrisy of the proposition. She argued that the Cambridge Union is itself a form of religion.

It only takes a quick glance around the main chamber to see what she’s talking about: all the people sitting politely as a congregation in an old chamber listening to traditionally dressed middle-aged balding white men spout their dogmas dressed in frill Cambridge rhetoric.  The Cambridge Union is closer to most people’s image of ‘organised religion’ than most of the churches in Cambridge.

Stephen Fry, demi-God of the Union crowd, delivering his sermon to a star-struck congregation in Lent.

Christ Street, the President of Atheism UK, provided testimony to this observation by delivering the most unpassionate, dry and thoroughly boring sermon of the night.

His argument was essentially: ‘I regret religion because I don’t believe in religion’. However, as soon as we take religion to be any set of collectively held beliefs, his argument becomes: ‘I regret beliefs because I’m a skeptic’.  A nonsense.

A nonsense that prevailed nonetheless. A 19% swing ensured the victory of the ayes.

Perhaps the opposition lost it when the three Christian speakers began preach to an at best majority agnostic audience.  Mrs McDonagh at one point proclaimed, ‘God is love!’ To which one audience member rather audibly responded: ‘God is life!’ Or perhaps it was when Peter D. Williams justified dogmas of the Christian faith by comparing them to the audience’s own dogmas against rape and genocide.

Don’t try telling this to members of the Union.

But the opposition argument had greater merit. We should see all sets of collective beliefs as religion-like behaviour in orientation and all religious behaviour as the expression of a set of beliefs. Perhaps, then, we might tolerate the differences of belief between ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’, Christians and Muslims, proper Cambridge colleges and Robinson.

By regretting organised religion, the House self-righteously and hypocritically put its own liberal aversion to religion above the theistic values of other institutions.  In the end, the Union – as well as other institutions – only differs from organised religion so much.

To regret ‘organised religion’ is tantamount to regretting the very ground on which it stands.