Faith & Reason: Elvis, Dawkins, the Pope and the lesser of evils

Want to know the difference between religion and mere supersition? Then first consider the distinctions between atheism and science and decide which could best do business with organised crime

THE OTHER week some marketing firm did one of those phoney surveys where you slice up the population into arbitrary groups - "trend-setters", "movers and shakers", "boring normals" - that sort of thing, and found that the percentage of believers among the trend-setters was marginally higher than among the boring normals. Indeed, one paper reported that 17 per cent of the movers and shakers believe that the earth was made in six days by God; though it turned out that these were probably American.

Now, the purpose of these marketing surveys is not to tell us anything about ourselves, but to advertise the services of the marketing company, which is one reason I have forgotten its name. And from the point of view of a marketing company "religious belief" is a pretty useless category, because believers are so stratified. It's not just that you would have a hard time selling holy water in Mecca, or copies of the Koran in Trincomalee. Even within the major religions, there are strong cultural differences. You can't sell Catholic tat to evangelical Christians, and there is very little market for stirring evangelical testimony except among the already converted. The Muslim saints of Pakistan don't travel outside their native land.

It used to be credible that this incompatibility was something humanity would grow out of. The Richard Dawkins argument was that truth-claims of organised religions are mutually exclusive. They can't all be right, so the likeliest explanation for this disagreement is that they're all wrong - unless, of course, he is. The reason I think he is mistaken is that we're not really looking at 99 competing explanations for the same set of phenomena. It's rather like love. We have all seen - it's a phenomenon more immediate than belief, or understanding - a face, or a way of walking, that is perfect. We have all heard our names called in the way they were meant to be and even discovered other names our mouths were shaped to say. P.G. Wodehouse and Shakespeare got some wonderful comic effects out of this. For, of course, the lovers can't all be right when they think they've seen the most beautiful girl in the world.

But we laugh and still fall in love. We look at a hundred lovers arguing over whose love is most beautiful and we don't decide that, since 99 of them must be wrong, the parsimonious explanation is that they all are wrong, and that beauty must be an illusion. This is true even when you unlink the contemplation of beauty from sexual desire. I find the movement of cats, or trout, lovelier than that of horses; I am sure there are people who disagree with me, and just as certain that none of these disagreements are actuated by a suppressed desire to copulate with fish.

In a similar way, when people are told that their religions are irrational, they don't generally stop being religious. They just stop expecting religion to be rational. This is a loss both to religion and to our ideas of rationality, or reasonableness. Dogmatic atheists like to suppose that there is no difference between religion and superstition. But there is one certain way to tell the difference, and this is that atheism, while it does quite well against organised religion, is helpless against superstition. Science, on the other hand, drives out superstition but is powerless against religion. If a scientific education does cure fundamentalism, it must be prolonged well after the level of a doctorate in nuclear physics, otherwise Pakistan would not have an Islamic bomb.

Another way of looking at the difference between religion and superstition is to say that organised religion is like organised crime. You can do business with it. You may disagree with the Pope about many things, but he could give reasons for everything he believes, and he would expect these reasons to harmonise. But you cannot argue with a devotee of Elvis. There is no possible set of facts which could contradict her belief. The guerrilla forces of disorganised credulity are able to pit science and religion against each other. If all cosmologies are equally irrational, then why should there be any reason for picking science over creationism?

This level of irrational preference is where the marketing companies can operate successfully. If you can't do business with superstition, you can still make money out of it. A few global brands of sacredness can be sold across - or beneath - all cultures and religions. These brands should ideally have no fixed meaning at all. They should be as empty as a crystal ball; and the perfect example of this profound vacuity is Diana, Princess of Wales. That is what makes so wholly delightful the discovery that Dr Andrew Purkis, the man in charge of her memorial fund, is spending its entire monthly income on lawyers' fees to try and establish ownership of her brand. Dr Purkis has a past in organised religion which cannot have prepared him for his present job. Before he moved into a global religious brand, he worked at Lambeth Palace, for Dr George Carey, a man of whom no collectible china figurines exist (and, if they do, I want one).

But God, as we know, moves in mysterious ways, and perhaps He can arrange for the lawsuits to grind on until neither side has any money left at all.

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