Thursday, October 23, 2008

Belief on the buses

On a Sunday morning recently I was in Hackney, reckoned to be London's poorest borough, looking for an office among some old rundown factory and warehouse buildings beside the canal. I saw some African people, families in their Sunday best, entering a building down the street, and as I drew near I could hear singing from within.

I was not surprised. There are churches like this in all sorts of unexpected places in London, and I dare say other cities. There was one belonging to some exotic denomination tucked away behind factories by the canal in Alperton where I used to live.

There are also the more conventional locations, former cinemas full of happy clappers and old chapels that have taken on a new life with mainly immigrant congregations.

I thought of that old place in south Hackney, and the people who might go there, when I was invited this week to support a campaign behind an ad on London buses saying:"There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

I'm an atheist. And I am all for people enjoying life. Indeed, for making it possible for everyone to enjoy life. I can share the feelings of comedy writer Ariane Sherine, who appears to have inspired this campaign with an article she wrote in June about the Christian adverts running on London buses, which linked to a website saying non-believers would burn in hell for all eternity.

But urging people to "stop worrying" is a bit untimely and in bad taste right now, with people losing their homes and savings, local councils losing millions in banks that have folded, domestic fuel costs soaring and rising unemployment.

Even when the economy was booming lots of people found it difficult to enjoy life. Figures produced by the London Child Poverty Commission show that a quarter of children in London live below the poverty line, and that this rises to 41 per cent after the capital's housing costs are taken into account.

A report published last month from the Greater London Assembly's economics unit said: "Between 15-19% of London’s workforce is low paid (earning less than £7.05 an hour), that’s between 481,000 and 609,267 working poor. Low pay more frequently affects employees who are less well-qualified, young, and from black and minority ethnic communities".

Of course, money is not everything, but it is a good start. Even if you are earning good money stress caused by worrying over your job or the way you are treated at work, or your housing, contributes to alcoholism, dependence on drugs (prescribed or illegal), and thence or directly, to high levels of domestic as well as street violence.

Religion? "It is the sigh of an oppressed creature," wrote Karl Marx, "the heart of a heartless world...the opium of the masses". In some versions, the word is opiates. In Marx's day, opiates, or laudanum, were commonly used to alleviate pain, when people could not afford or obtain medicine.

If some with the wherewithal for selfish greed need an almighty Father figure to bid them respect the needs of others, I am not anxious to free their consciences. As for those other well-to-do believers who lie and cheat six days a week, then thank the Lord for his favours the seventh; and those with power who inflict pain on people whom they believe consigned to hell anyway; perhaps an appropriate poster should read: "There is NO God. Start worrying!"

But for many poor working people, suffering and treated like dirt week after week, the day they stand bowed in prayer is, paradoxically as it may seem, the one day they can hold their heads up high, confident that in His eyes, at least, they are human beings, and any one's equal.

What's more, If the idea of a world to come was meant to console the masses for the misery and injustice they endure in this one, it has not succeeded in dulling entirely the sense that we are entitled to something better in this life.

Some years ago I had the privilege of meeting Clara Buckley, a Black woman from Brixton, who waged what began as a one-woman campaign for the truth about the death of her son Orville in Broadmoor. Her quiet courage and dignity in taking on the powers that be impressed everyone. I was interested to learn that Clara was an elder of her little church, which probably helped give her that confidence.

More recently, in the fight for decent wages and conditions for cleaners on London Underground I learned that one of the cleaners organising with the RMT in our area doubled as a minister at weekends with some church in Docklands.

I don't believe there's a God. But who am I to take it away from these folk? I'm a materialist. So if I was to spend money on a poster (and I think we can all think of better uses)" it might read something like "Never mind if we disagree about the Next Life. Let's unite to achieve a better world for all in this one!"



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