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.

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
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
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.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial