The National Religion

I consider myself to be Agnostic (or, if you like, a fence-sitter) when it comes to things like religious belief: I don’t have a strong conviction towards any particular religion but at the same time don’t think that the world would be better off if religions no longer existed. People who believe that religion is the source of all human misery probably have a naïve understanding of human nature because if we weren’t killing each other over religion we’d be killing ourselves over something else. Also, the anti-religious Communist countries were not exactly Gardens of Eden where peace and brotherhood reigned supreme and arguably the belief in its cause, despite the evidence of its failings, was a religious one. 

Since I grew up in a historically Christian country I has some affinity towards Christianity more than any other religion and I have a lot of respect for the teachings and messages of the Bible. Furthermore, the influence of Christianity on the Western World from its laws, customs and language cannot be easily dismissed even though many countries in the West are now mostly secular. The human need to believe in something has not gone away with the decline of religion and many people have suggested our obsession with identity politics has come about because of the vacuum left by the decline of religious belief.

In the UK, institutions like the National Health Service (NHS) have a following that matches the devotion people once had for the Church and this was evident to me recently when there was a public show of applause for the NHS in response to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic and the work of medical staff in managing it. People took to the streets to register their love for the NHS and those  on Twitter from both sides of the political spectrum spoke of being filled with emotion at the sight of people clapping and cheering for ‘our NHS’. In an article for Country Squire website, James Bembridge describes the religious undertones of this: “People were expected to practice this worship from home but open the windows so that others may hear, like some perverse call to prayer.” Bembridge goes on to write: “By all means praise the workers, but why extend that to the whole of the NHS? We are perhaps the only democracy that regards a government institution with this quasi-divine reverence.”

At the time I write this the UK, along with many other countries, is in lockdown to try and slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus. The police have been given more powers to restrict people’s movement and, in the case of Derbyshire police, even spy on people outside via drones. The Country Squire article also describes how the increase in the State and curbs on freedom in response to the virus have been widely accepted and how the small number of people who have questioned the government’s response and the severity of the virus have been condemned for taking an opposing point of view. Journalist Peter Hitchens is one of those who has spoken out against the rapid increase of government control to tackle the virus and a recent article he wrote in the Mail on Sunday resulted in Hitchens being mobbed on Twitter. Such a response, similar to that seen by people who preach identity politics, is reflective of the way those who questioned dogmatic and fanatically religious belief were labelled as ‘heretics’ in the past.

I’m no expert on viruses so I don’t know how dangerous the current outbreak of coronavirus is or will be but I am sceptical about the worship of national institutions like the NHS regardless of all the hard working staff who undoubtedly have done their best to treat patients with the virus. Moreover, I’m sceptical of many people’s desire to increase the size of the state to deal with the crisis. In his article Hitchens writes: “I despair that so many in the commentariat  and politics obediently accept what they are being told. I have lived long enough, and travelled far enough, to know that authority is often wrong and cannot always be trusted.” When a similar pandemic occurs in the future, regardless of if the future virus is more or less deadly than Covid-19, governments will be eager to adopt similar powers again.

It’s possible that when the Covid-19 crisis finally passes those who questioned the response towards it will face more abuse and ridicule and the NHS may take the form of a national religion to an even greater degree. If the virus is not as terrible as it is been portrayed than hopefully more people will question the government instead of making it into a national religion as well.