An interesting survey was carried in this country recently by an equally interesting interest group, Dying Matters, a consortium of 16,000 hospices, care homes, charities and other organisations working with terminally ill patients. . . .Many people were asked to list desirable factors attending their last few weeks and days of life.
Retaining their dignity was chosen as their most important desideratum with having their family and friends around being the next, closely followed by the need of retaining their dignity. Having their religious or spiritual needs met fell at the bottom of a list of six.
I don’t know what previous surveys would have revealed, but I would guess that the last need might have been higher a hundred years ago but also that, pari passu with declining church attendances, it’s been declining steadily ever since. Three, four or five hundred years ago the need for some sort of religious assurance would have been prime, the fear of hell being very real in most individuals due to the country-wide indoctrination by the church. Seven hundred years ago, my old school, Bablake, was founded by Queen Isabella, the widow of King Henry II, in order for six poor boys boys to be given lodgings and sing daily mass for her soul, she was so afraid of purgatory.
It is good that organised religion no longer has such a power-hold over the population and that the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church are of declining importance these days in influencing public opinion. It would be better still, in my opinion, if the dignitaries of either Church simply stopped giving us their opinions at all in the public media and confined their wisdom to their own followers.
Unfortunately, the concurrent decline in Royalty, the Nation-state and the Church, at least among the intelligentsia, means that all three meet together as often as possible in colourful and elaborate ceremonies in order to give each other comfort, especially doing so at times of great personal and public grief when they can fill up whole cathedrals with congregations. The strong human instinct of social deference to their ‘betters’ is still able to be manipulated with ease by the authorities.
Does the recent survey mean that religious belief is on its way out altogether? This country is now largely secular most of the time but the deepest feelings of religion, similar to those of science — that of questions about the meaning of life, the world and the universe — will probably always exist. Most people, it seems to me, take a conscious decision to support one viewpoint or the other at some stage in their lives, particularly in the impressionable years between puberty and early adulthood when both hormones and intellectual search for a personal role in the larger scheme of things are at their apogee.
When politicians are tackled about the hypocritical use they make of religion they justify themselves by saying that we still need a moral framework in our lives and that civilization (and support for the particular current form of government!) would fall apart without the morals that religion can supply. The problem with this is that different religions have different moral positions on many human predicaments.
But what ought to sink this particular type of rationalisation for good and all is the knowledge, recently discovered from careful experiments by biologists, that a strong intuitive sense of fairness, or justice, exists in all of us and develops apace in children at the age of about two. This is found to be universal in all human societies and is thus genetic in origina and not in any way inculcated ab initio by moral doctrines.
However, good conduct and cooperation are not necessarily scalable to people and societies outside those people we know well and are able to trust in everyday life. We and our predecessors lived in small groups for millions of years, during which we learned to be suspicious of other groups because they might have been after our sources of food if they approached too closely.
When it suits their purpose, politicians frequently wish us to overcome our cultural or racial suspicions with moral statements derived from religions. But, as modern societies become more secular and thus drawn to what science is saying rather than religions, then politicians would be better to learn that although different cultures may well be happy to carry out trade transactions with others from which both sides benefit, they are not necessarily prepared to live cheek-by-jowl with them. Politicians in America in particular with a large contingent of African-Americans within their population have still not learned the new lessons from science and are keeping to old libertarian shibboleths even though they don’t work and thus a racial tensions are as intractable today as they ever were.
Even less have the bureaucrats of Brussels or the statemen of the component countries of the European Union paid attention. Founded on the pretext of bringing peace between nations (rather than be simply a power grab by civil servants) the European Union is no nearer its purported purpose than it was 50 years ago. The French and the Germans still dislike each other, and their policies are frequently at odds despite their leaders frequently appearing together when giving press conferences. And there is no love lost between the Germans and the Greeks. The Germans would dearly like to see the departure of the Greeks from the Eurozone — but political pride prevents what would then be the consequent rupture of the Eurozone itself.
This post was not meant to be a homily on the inevitable decease of the Eurozone and, probably, of the EU itself, but that’s where the modest and very worthy survey of Dying Matters has taken me.