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Review - A pint's as good as a prayer? My God, I'll drink to that

Rosh Hashanah: what's the point of religion?

Available on BBC iPlayer

Religions are like pubs.

It sounds like a lead-in to a bad joke. In fact, it is the inadvertent message of a one-off BBC programme originally broadcast on Tuesday examining the role of religion in modern society.

To mark the Jewish new year, which falls on Thursday and Friday this week, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has made a programme asking what the point of religion is. The world, he says, is becoming increasingly secular. People are ever-more isolated, society ever-more broken down. "Faith," he proclaims, "is a vital antidote to most of society's biggest problems."

His argument, roughly, is this: communities need families for strength. Religious ritual makes families stronger. Society also needs community: a network of people who look out for each other. Religion offers this. Young and old are mutually suspicious. Religion makes young people more likely to volunteer in an old-age home.

This does beg the response: well, he would think that. It is, after all, his job.

Or, more lengthily: yes, in the past there were fewer divorces. But that just meant that families stayed together miserably and, often, violently. And Victorian church attendance appeared to have no impact on the number of beggars on the streets or people destitute in the workhouses. We may not have much religion in the 21st century, but at least we have a functioning benefits system.

However, the Chief Rabbi's programme does stop short of selling religion as a one-prayer-fixes-all solution to societal ills.

Lord Sacks interviews Robert Putnam, a Harvard sociologist. Professor Putnam, whose research is backed up by 500,000 interviews, points out that, yes, belonging to a religious community is a good thing, but that this has very little to do with actual religion.

"If you're an atheist, but have a lot of church friends, the data says that you're just as nice as someone who is deeply religious," he says. "In fact, nicer than someone who is deeply devout, prays all the time, fervently believes in God, but doesn't have any friends in church."

Next, Maurice Glasman, senior lecturer in political theory at London Metropolitan University, agrees that community networks help bind society together. But, he posits, trade unions can play exactly the same role. So, indeed, can the pub: "One of the few places left where people get together sociably, to talk, to be friends."

From Lord Sacks' point of view, religion is by far the most effective community network: "At its very core are morals and values that you need to create a strong society."

It is a valid viewpoint, and one he argues with obvious conviction. As for the rest of us? We're off down the pub.

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