Faith & Reason: Ian Paisley and other sacred cows

The difference between a cult and a proper religion lies in the ability to found proper universities - which is why modern faith communities are not producing any

SOME PEOPLE have problems believing God exists. Mine is slightly different: I don't believe in religions. For when you look closely at the concept of "religion" it becomes almost as diffuse as the notion of "Anglicanism".

There is no single practice or belief which is always and only religious. Neither is there any guarantee that "religious" ideas have anything in common with each other - not even that they can all grow in the fertile mulch that lines the skull of a football manager. Yet the word is a useful one. It does mean something important to say that Europe is entering a post-religious age, though it clearly does not mean that we are entering an age of rationality (or even of unbounded credulity).

One way round the difficulty is to talk about "organised religion" but I think this is just weasel-ish because organisation is one of the defining qualities of a serious religion, without which it cannot long persist. We don't normally talk about "nourishing food" or "mothers with children" - and "organised religion" is a similar tautology.

What makes a religion "organised" is more than simply discipline. The boundary between religions and cults may be obscure, and fuzzy, but it certainly exists. There are cults and sects which are far more ferociously disciplined than traditional forms of Christianity. There are some which seem to have emerged from that state to become full- blown religions: Mormonism comes to mind. But there is movement in both directions, as other fragments of established religions sink into cult- hood, like some of the wackier Pentecostal churchlets, with their belief in divinely inspired leaders.

The definition of a cult seems to have more to do with the relations between the members and the society around them. Sacred cows are part of a religion in Uttar Pradesh. But when you see them cropping peacefully in the Hertfordshre commuter belt, you know you have found the Hare Krishnas' mansion. Though the movement is organised, and a religion, its distance from most of the surrounding society means that its white members certainly are practising what we might call disorganised religion. Sometimes, of course, this transfer into a foreign society can render a religion more rather than less benevolent. The heart sinks a little at Ian Paisley's missionary journeys in West Africa or Wales, but at least his followers do less harm there than in Northern Ireland.

If I am right, and Paisleyism in Cameroon is a cult of sorts, whereas in Northern Ireland it is a religion or part of one, this shows at least that religions are not necessarily more benificent, still less benevolent than cults. But there is one form of organisation of which only religions are capable. It combines discipline, organisation and a healthy relationship with the surrounding society. The fact that it no longer happens in Europe summons up exactly what is meant by secularisation. The golden test is this: proper religions can found universities.

By this token, European Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Confucianism and possibly Hinduism are certainly religions. I know there are American fundamentalist universities. Ian Paisley got his doctorate from one, but that's not the only reason for distrusting them. The US also have a University of the Hamburger, and I don't think that's part of a religion either. A proper university cannot be fundamentalist, since fundamentalism is a 19th-century reaction to the discovery that knowledge and religious truth may be incompatible. A real university can't be so afraid that it can only go out into the world wearing blinkers. A friend of mine taught for a while at an Islamic University in Malaysia, and found the experience completely stultifying simply because everything thought or taught had to be checked to see if it drifted into for- bidden territories.

Religions need more than unself-conscious intellectual confidence if they are to launch universities. They need money; libraries and learning have always been expensive, even if scholars are cheap. And they need the confidence of the society surrounding them. A university is not a vocational college. It's not even a seminary. It is something which is recognised to benefit the whole of the society surrounding it. All of these are resources which are beyond cults, almost by definition. They are certainly beyond disorganised spirituality. A university of the New Age would be as much use as a Hamburger University, even if there were anything solid to study there.

The links between Western European Christianity and the universities have collapsed almost completely: I think that Cardinal Newman was the last man to attempt to found a religious university in these islands, and certainly the idea would never occur to anyone today. This is perhaps the most concrete meaning that can be attached to the idea of a post-religious society. This distinction has the further advantage of holding even in Eastern Europe, where religion is alive partly because its connection with universities remains organic. Which explains why a former Polish university professor like Pope John Paul II, who really believes that a university without religion has lost its soul, thinks in ways which seem so completely alien to most Western intellectuals.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star