Religion: would I be half-hearted or a die-hard?

In some ways I envy those of my friends who are religious. It must be reassuring to be able to roll up all of life’s mysteries into a simple bundle and label it “God’s work”.

No real need to ponder the meaning of life; the infinite vastness of space is explained by a blind faith that everything is the work of the deity; and death no longer hangs around like a brooding menace accompanying every day, whether it be sad, unremarkable and totally ecstatic. The package takes care of everything, from reassurance to infinite reward, from morality to inspiration.

Some people hide when they see a pair of smartly-dressed Jehovah’s Witnesses making their way to the front door. Not me. I always answer the knock. I relish the opportunity to converse with people who are so utterly convinced by their creed that they are prepared to take their beliefs out into the community and try to convince others that they are right. I suppose I harbour a kind of envy – it must be good to have all those doubts and fears taken care of. And there’s no doubt that religion has acted and continues to act as a contributory agent to a peaceful society, except of course where it drives some to fanaticism. Increasingly, religious festivals are being absorbed into our calendars as important milestones, but as having little more spiritual significance than Valentine’s Day or Bonfire Night. I mean, surely those who wait for hours outside department stores for the start of the Christmas sales aren’t spending too much time contemplating the miracle of the virgin birth?

But I quickly make it clear to the Bible-clutching pair that I am unconvinceable. Although the ‘Big Bang’ is the best explanation I’ve heard for the beginning of this universe, for many years I’ve been content to assume that both time and space had no beginning and will have no end point. Whilst we are accustomed to there being beginnings and endings for everything we encounter in our daily lives, I can’t imagine there ever being a dead end on the superhighway of Time itself.

Image: 9 year WMAP image of background cosmic radiation (2012)

No doubt there are many opaque regions of Newtonian physics, relativity or string theory that I’ll never get to understand, or some aspect of the Higg’s boson that will forever remain a black hole in my apperception of quarks and their like, but as far as I’m concerned there couldn’t possible have been a Grand Beginning. And certainly their idea that there is a Supreme Being who got the ball rolling seems at best misguided.

That said, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other people of strong faith, who devote a significant portion of their lives to actual activities in relation to their religion, seem to me to be acting in a fairly logical fashion. If I believed, I think I’d want, like them, to act on my convictions, in the way – to draw a slightly tongue-in-cheek analogy – supporters of football clubs do. Die-hard football fans go to both home and away matches; they follow the latest news about their club via the media; they discuss developments with their friends and acquaintances; their loyalties may extend to purchasing merchandise and festooning a room in their house with iconic images and memorabilia: in short, they will worship their team with passionate loyalty.

That’s how I would be with religion.

I’m pretty sure I’d go to a place of worship very regularly; I’d want to do whatever I could to spread the word; and I’d lead a life in which all of my thoughts and activities were steeped in the influence and requirements of my religious creed. Otherwise, I’d be like those Manchester United supporters who aren’t really supporters but just say they are to be accepted as part of their peer group …

Indeed, I might well go further. If I truly believed in the power of prayer, for instance, I’d want to see prayer being used pro-actively by government, education and industry as a means of achieving objectives. If I ruled such a religious world, there’d be a programme of experimentation with various approaches to prayer – qualitative and quantitative – to measure the success or otherwise of different strategies. The prayer industry would probably be a key component of the economy.

In the real world that doesn’t happen, of course. While British people get most aerated about Brexit, the honours system and Donald Trump, their attitude towards religion can be described as tepid, at best. And religious belief is in rapid decline in Britain. According to the latest British Attitudes Surveyclick here to view a chart accompanying the September 2017 press release – more than half the population (53%) say they have no religion. In 1983, 40% of the population described themselves as Anglican or Church of England; by 2016, that percentage had fallen to 15%. Only 3% of people aged 18-24 describe themselves as being Anglican or members of the Church of England.

The decline is beginning to look terminal; but, personally, I fear not – I’m sure there will be life after the death of religion.

 


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Image credit: door knocker – by AnemoneProjectors [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team

The detailed, all-sky picture of the infant universe created from nine years of WMAP data. The image reveals 13.77 billion year old temperature fluctuations (shown as color differences) that correspond to the seeds that grew to become the galaxies. The signal from our galaxy was subtracted using the multi-frequency data. This image shows a temperature range of ± 200 microKelvin.

Image credit: Manchester United fan – By Светлана Бекетова (https://www.soccer0010.com/galery/966142.shtml) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Brexit is a moment, but also an ancient tide

“Leaving would cause at least some business uncertainty, while embroiling the Government for several years in a fiddly process of negotiating new arrangements, so diverting energy from the real problems of this country – low skills, low social mobility, low investment, etc. – that have nothing to do with Europe”, Boris Johnson, February 2016.

But very soon after he said those words, opportunist Johnson saw that, by coming down in favour of Brexit, he could swim with that ancient British tide of xenophobia and maybe, in the process, further his ambition to be Prime Minister (something I have written about previously). This was at a time when his credibility and charisma still gleamed brightly and he was able to influence a significant slice of public opinion. He chose his moment carefully and, propelled by a following wind from the Tory press, he was appointed captain of the Good Ship Brexit. From his personal point-of-view, it was a masterful piece of politicking, one that Shakespeare‘s Brutus would have admired:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures”.

Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3, lines 218–224.

And yes, sure enough, just as Boris’s star moved into the ascendant, so the tide began to turn in favour of an exit from the EU. The arguments that Remainers listed, floated, ran up the flag pole and dredged up from highly-authoritative sources, failed to change the country’s inevitable course towards self-ejection from the organisation. It was as though Britain had put its collective fingers in its ears.

And maybe it had … maybe xenophobia is a fundamental character trait of the British. Winston Churchill, surely Boris’s greatest hero, once wrote: “If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea” (though he changed his mind and ultimately became very pro-European).

And we can find much older literary references that illustrate this point. In particular, Oliver Goldsmith (right), in an essay “On National Prejudices“, first published in the British Magazine in August 1760, described his surprise at the anti-European sentiment that he found when entering into discussion with a group of “half a dozen gentlemen” that he met in a tavern, where

” … one of the gentlemen, cocking his hat, and assuming such an air of importance as if he had possessed all the merit of the English nation in his own person, declared that the Dutch were a parcel of avaricious wretches; the French a set of flattering sycophants; that the Germans were drunken sots, and beastly gluttons; and the Spaniards proud, haughty, and surly tyrants; but that in bravery, generosity, clemency, and in every other virtue, the English excelled all the world”.

Goldsmith turns away but the man is determined to get his opinion on the matter. The writer, who holds it for a maxim to “speak … [his] … own sentiments”, begs to differ:

“I therefore told him that, for my own part, I should not have ventured to talk in such a peremptory strain, unless I had made the tour of Europe, and examined the manners of these several nations with great care and accuracy: that, perhaps, a more impartial judge would not scruple to affirm that the Dutch were more frugal and industrious, the French more temperate and polite, the Germans more hardy and patient of labour and fatigue, and the Spaniards more staid and sedate, than the English; who, though undoubtedly brave and generous, were at the same time rash, headstrong, and impetuous; too apt to be elated with prosperity, and to despond in adversity”.

In this sceptred isle, failing to go with the flow is often seen as a cardinal sin in certain circles and Goldsmith’s riposte met with “a contemptuous sneer”, as

” … the patriotic gentleman observed […] that he was greatly surprised how some people could have the conscience to live in a country which they did not love, and to enjoy the protection of a government, to which in their hearts they were inveterate enemies”.

Exasperated, Goldsmith threw down his payment and retired to his lodgings, “reflecting on the absurd and ridiculous nature of national prejudice and prepossession”.

Gaffe-strewn though his recent careering may have been, Johnson knows a thing or two about certain currents that flow deep in the British psyche, and he may yet bubble up to the very crest of a Tory wave in times to come. He knows how to chart prejudice and turn it to his own advantage.

So amidst all the warnings that the country will either end up on the rocks or sail off into a glorious sunset, that deeply-held (by some) British distrust of Johnny Foreigner is a factor that shouldn’t be overlooked.

 

 

Source: The Independent, 21st February, 2016.

Image credit: Brutus – by Wolfgang Sauber (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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