Today, a memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey to commemorate the British tourists killed in terror attacks in Tunisia last year. I commend the prime minister David Cameron and Prince Harry for attending, laying wreaths and carrying out readings. They were there on behalf of our nation, representing all of us, standing up to islamic fascism and terrorism. It was a strong signal and they were right to attend. I am totally in favour of memorial events to commemorate the deaths of people, but why must they always be religious services?
I am not having a pop at the Dean of Westminster, whoever he is, because I am quite sure that his motives today were all perfectly decent. And I have no criticism for Mr Cameron or Prince Harry, because they were only following age-old tradition by reading passages from the bible. But why the bible?
I know this is a difficult subject but there are some awkward facts here. The biggest group of people in this country is now those who have no religion at all. But in terms of those who actually go to church/mosque/temple/synagogue etc, then the devout are in a very small majority, if you include those who attend christenings, weddings and funerals and say ‘CofE’ when they are asked what their religion is.
Some will say that the bereaved will gain comfort from such services, as some kind of vindication of faith, and the last thing I would want to do is to prevent the bereaved from gaining comfort. I am not even going to suggest we desist in such services, not in one go anyway, and certainly not until we have something better and that will be hard to find.
As a secularist and an atheist, I am still sympathetic to the idea of memorial services, but with less, or even none, of the religious stuff. That is not to say there should be no religious content in such an occasion, but the whole thing would not be dominated but it. I have been to numerous funeral services that have avoided all references to religious superstition and they were all the better for it. A memorial service, to a group of people murdered in cold blood, is rather different from a funeral, and unlike many funerals, it is hardly likely to be in any way upbeat or positive, but it should surely not be confined to religion.
I have no objection to people reading out excerpts from religious scripts if others can read out the writings of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, if they want to.
At the centre of it for me is that religion itself, through all its factions, is the most divisive concept of them all. Read a peaceful passage from the bible and all is sweetness and light, but read another when, say, the vengeful God is busy drowning everyone accept Noah, who once he saved all the world’s animals, burned them all, got pissed and lay naked before his sons. Sorry, I wasn’t intending to be disrespectful, but that’s what it said in Genesis and people seem to pick and choose what they like about the bible.
We certainly do need to remember people like those who were savagely murdered in Tunisia a year ago. I’m having a pop at no one in particular, just the ancient habits and traditions that decree we always remember them with a religious service. Religion forms a rich part of our history, whether we believe in a supernatural dictator or not and whilst it is hard to respect any religion – you surely need to earn respect religion like you need to earn respect in anything else – it cannot be ignored or forgotten.
Evolution, not revolution, has to be the way forward in such memorial services, to move away from a strictly religious occasion, to make it more inclusive but to maintain and sustain the very existential reasons for remembrance. It’s not to take away God, who in all likelihood was never there in the first place, but to make memorial services more inclusive and more reflective of the society in which we live.