Religion reporting can do your head in

By Simon Barrow
November 20, 2007

Though he met good people too, Stephen Bates, the Guardian's ex-religious affairs correspondent, says that the sheer nastiness he encountered among some believers turned him right off.

So did a number of secularists and atheists - "some as fundamentalist in their beliefs as the most dogmatic religionist".

In an article in New Humanist magazine for November/December 2007 (see:, Bates writes:

What really surprised me was the mendacity and sheer nastiness with which [inter- and intr-church] feuds were conducted and, of course, the certainty with which such people knew that God was speaking directly to them and – funnily enough – endorsing whatever action they had decided to take. It is a hermetically sealed, deeply insecure view of the outside world and it does not just infect Anglicans, but many denominations. The Roman Catholic Church, to which one sixth of the world’s population belongs, still believes that all other Christians, let alone other religions, belong to false churches. It has only just decided to abolish the concept of limbo, that half-state to which those who cannot be admitted to Heaven but do not deserve to go to Hell are consigned. Originally developed in the Middle Ages as a pragmatic way of alleviating the anguish of bereaved parents and explaining what had happened to the good people who died before Christ, it has only now outlived its philosophical usefulness.

Some religious doctrines are much more bizarre and malign than this. They occasionally come blinking into the light. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, believe that those outside their inner circle will be ground to dust on the last day (remember this the next time you open your front door to them) and will only cooperate with the police in child abuse cases if the molestation has been independently and simultaneously witnessed by two elders, which may be setting the bar a little high.

Faltering in the face of so much theology, I decided to cover church issues politically. As a former lobby correspondent, I felt that the disputes were more explicable in such terms. When Pope John Paul II started appointing cardinals wholesale towards the end of his reign, in an attempt to fix the choice of his successor – the cardinals being the men who choose the pope – I reported it as a political move (“That’s fine,” said one of the more obtuse members of the Guardian’s newsdesk team, “but what’s a cardinal?” – you can’t assume even basic knowledge these days). The manoeuvring became easier to understand that way – and indeed some conservative evangelicals are using tactics remarkably similar to the old Militant Tendency to infiltrate the Church of England these days.

I don’t want to give the impression that all religionists are mad or bad. Besides some pretty unpleasant people, I also met some inspirational ones, working selflessly and often obscurely in the world, motivated not by ambition or for reward but by their faith. This is not to be sneered at.

The religious correspondent is the one specialist on the Guardian who has to justify his specialism to the sceptics, on the paper and outside (“Why do we have to read this rubbish?”), and to our many religiously inclined readers (“Why are you always so hostile to religion?”). The Guardian actually gives more space to a wider range of religious (and non-religious) opinions than any other paper. That is precisely because religion is important as a philosophical, political, cultural, social and historical motivating force across the world and, despite the best efforts of atheists and secularists – some as fundamentalist in their beliefs as the most dogmatic religionist – will remain so.

Now I am moving on. It was time to go. What faith I had, I’ve lost, I am afraid – I’ve seen too much, too close. A young Methodist press officer once asked me earnestly whether I saw it as my job to spread the Good News of Jesus. No, I said, that’s the last thing I am here to do.

New Humanist:

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