Restoring a House of God in a Secular Nation

Canterbury Cathedral is an awe-inspiring, magnificent place. It is also in need of restoration work. To finance the effort, a philanthropic campaign is underway which inadvertantly provides some insight into religion’s standing in the country.

The campaign features large posters with photos of people who are connected to cathedral, each of whom is quoted completing the sentence starter “I love my cathedral because…”. The reasons are varied and understandable: The wonderful staff, the joy of singing, the historical value, the educational programmes and the restoration opportunities for artisans.

Notably absent in the list are motivations such as “I love the cathedral because it brings me closer to God” or “I love the cathedral because it is an inspiring place to practise my Christian faith”.

The campaign designers know their audience. In a self-consciously secular nation, a fund raising campaign to save one of the most significant shrines in Christendom can’t sound any more religious than would an effort to preserve Battersea Power Station.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

3 thoughts on “Restoring a House of God in a Secular Nation”

  1. This is also, I would assume, about the target audience for the campaign. The people for whom the religious aspect is important are already no doubt being hit up by mailings and phone calls and appeals through their local congregations. Public posters, to avoid duplication of effort, should be aimed at people who won’t be reached by those other means.

    (And of course there’s a debate no one wants to engage in if you talk about the restoration campaign as a matter of furthering faith. US “Prosperity Gospel” evil aside, there’s a pretty strong tradition of virtuous poverty and self-denial in the christian church, so way too many questions would be asked about why money should go to restoring a sumptuous palace for the religious aristocracy instead of to the poor and the sick.)

  2. Perhaps there is a less cynical explanation, too.

    I love Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Every time I visit New York I visit it. I walk down the block on the other side of Fifth Avenue, admiring it from the outside. If possible I go in the afternoon on a sunny day, so that the sun in the west will shine on the facade. Then I go inside, and admire it in all directions. I love it because it is a magnificent example of what man hath wrought.

    I am an agnostic, of Jewish heritage. It doesn’t bring me one inch closer to God. It doesn’t inspire me to become a Christian, nor to return to religious practices. But every time I visit there, I leave a small donation for the building fund. I want it to be just as magnificent next time I return.

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