Watching One Love, the concert for those affected by the recent terrorist bombing in Manchester, was a strangely quasi-religious experience, and a fascinating insight into the secular rituals that have come to define public mourning in the secular West.

Scheduled on a Sunday, the event was designed partly as an act of defiance by Ariana Grande and her management team, and partly as a semi-religious grief ritual for the city of Manchester.

Some of the songs performed at the concert made passing reference to religious themes, like the Black Eyed Peas’ song Where is the Love, a kind of prayer for world peace, which includes the line, “Father, Father, Father help us/ Send some guidance from above.”

Robbie Williams sang his oddly quasi-religious song, Angels, and Coldplay did Viva la Vida with the cryptic lines about the bells of Jerusalem, missionaries in a foreign field, and something about St Peter not calling my name.

While other songs, although not specifically religious, were performed with a kind of gravity befitting a secular hymn. Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Don’t Dream It’s Over and Don’t Look Back in Anger united the audience in a type of collective optimism usually reserved for religious singing. Or football anthems.  

Of course, there were some explicitly religious moments, like when Justin Bieber declared that “God is good in the midst of the evil. God is good in the midst of the darkness. He loves you.”

His announcement was met with cheers.

Remember, this is modern day Britain, one of the most secular nations in the world. A recent survey on religious affiliation in the UK found formal religion, particularly Christianity, is declining dramatically in popularity. Half the population (48.5% to be exact) do not identify with a religious tradition at all.

That compares to a quarter of Americans, and slightly less (23%) in Australia.

And yet in this increasingly secular nation, Brits can cheer a testimony of faith from Justin Bieber and sing along with Robbie Williams “I’m loving angels instead”, while holding signs declaring that those killed in the May 22 bombing had turned into angels in the afterlife.

What are we to make of this kind of folk religious ritual?

It reminded me of Christian Smith’s research into the religious beliefs of American teenagers, published as Soul Searching in 2005. He claimed that American adolescents weren’t so much Christian in their outlook (even when they self-identified as such), but could be better described as holding to what he termed, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

Smith described Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as consisting of the following beliefs:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth;
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions;
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself;
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem;
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die. Or turn into angels, as the case may be.

It felt to me like One Love was the perfect example of a Moralistic Therapeutic Deist worship service. Ariana Grande was the worship leader. Justin Bieber was the preacher. And Bono (beamed in via satellite) was the senior pastor.

 

And instead of crosses, everyone wore bunny ears.

I think those of us trying to commend faith in secular societies will have to get used to operating in this spiritual landscape. No longer will people turn exclusively to the church to manage such rituals. Funerals, memorials, weddings and other public events previously exclusively the domain of the church are now being outsourced to others.

I remember after the Boxing Day tsunami in South Asia in 2004, our mayor asked me to participate in a secular memorial service to honor the more than 250,000 people who lost their lives.

It was a citywide event, not a church service, so various local people and organizations made contributions. There were readings from the Bhagavad Gita, positive thoughts from a local New Age therapist and a choir sang John Lennon’s Imagine.

I was asked to read a passage from the Bible (of my choosing) and say a few brief words. I thought it would be tough to segue into a word about Christian hope after everyone had just swayed along to, “Imagine there’s no heaven/ It’s easy if you try/ No hell below us/ Above us only sky.”

But no one seemed phased. For them it was easy to drift from sacred Hindu writings to Christian ones, from a secular hymn to a performance of Amazing Grace. I realized pretty quickly that I was participating in a ritual at the church of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

But herein lies the challenge for traditional religious practitioners. Do we withdraw completely, saying the whole thing is an insipid mash-up of the least offensive parts of various belief systems? Or do we recognize if we want to be heard at all we need to join in?

 

Some say it’s demeaning to God when we’re willing to put our religious beliefs on the great smorgasbord of ideas currently in vogue in the West. Jesus came to abolish religion, they say, not create another one of equal value to sit alongside all the others. And I hear that. It has the ring of truth. And it makes my heart sing a little.

But with the church in such rapid decline in the UK and elsewhere, it seems like religious suicide to say we’re not willing to participate in such public rituals and we won’t join our voice with the voices of the grieving and the fearful in places like Manchester and London and Melbourne.

And don’t think you can wait until your city is faced with a significant calamity before you decide. In every likelihood they won’t even think of inviting you, let alone ask for your input, unless you’re already a trusted voice in the city.

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