Arthur C Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, to which some wit added that any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced. Most people believe in technology. They don't know how a microwave works, but they are happy to put their lunch in it.
Science is a different matter. Even scientists have a hard time believing in science, and they understand it. Physics in this century has uncovered the universe from the Big Bang to the Big Crunch, and discovered the laws that move the greatest galaxies and the most infinitesimal quark. What is more, these laws make predictions with stupefying precision. However, these predictions give us the "how" of the Universe, not the "why" or even the "what".
So it is fashionable to suppose that scientists are returning to God. The physicist Paul Davies was recently awarded pounds 650,000 for "progress in religion", after writing several books with "God" in their titles. But the God whom Davies admires has little to do with conventional theology, and a scientific study would probably find more atheistic scientists alive today than ever. This is one area in which popular belief is probably right: if science can work magic, who needs miracles?
The great thing about rabbis is that we don't feel guilt about not believing what they believe. There may only be 300,000 Jews in the country but their reasonable-sounding rabbis speak to a far wider public.
There is a rabbi for every taste. On the liberal wing we have Julia Neuberger, who is so completely reasonable that her views might be those of anyone who had never heard of God. The reform rabbi Hugo Gryn is further distinguished, being the only wholly reasonable man ever to be heard on The Moral Maze. Meanwhile, the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, so utterly orthodox yet so urbanely English, is so reasonable that progressive Jews expect him to have a nervous breakdown at any moment from the strain of believing what he does. The whole picture is so sweetly reasonable that it comes as a shock to realise that none of these rabbis could agree with each other about anything for more than five seconds - unless you asked them whether there was too much attention paid in the media to Rabbi Lionel Blue. S
What do we really believe in? The visitor from another planet (see UFOs, below) would be forgiven for rushing to a swift conclusion: sex. Sex is our core activity and the selling of cars, clothes, washing powder and even ice-cream has been subordinated to it.
Sex is what we have instead of manners. It is how we meet each other - and what we talk about when we have met. It is the way we define each other, and ourselves. We were told by the sociologists last week that it is the only essential factor in a modern marriage, eclipsing child- rearing, home-making, shared interests, or common courtesy. But as anyone who has experienced any of the above will know, they are not nearly as memorable as chocolate.
Last year a wave of excitement swept British churches, felling everyone who stood in its way. The "Toronto Blessing" reduced stout Christians to helpless giggles, then raucous laughter, followed, perhaps, by a coma on the floor. Originally it consisted of waves of hysterical laughter that would buffet congregations of evangelical churches. Later it included judderings, sudden faints, and animal noises - chiefly barking and roaring.
These excitements showcased the self-confidence of modern evangelical Christianity as well as its self-absorption. Visitors were welcome to see the show, confident that the truth of the gospel would be demonstrated by the sight of a bishop traversing the floor of his church on hands and knees, roaring like a lion. If nothing else, it made a change from the other sort of roaring bishops in the news.
For the people who find astrology too rigorous, there is always a belief in UFOs. Once a promising fringe religion, Ufology has become a victim of its own success: when there are absolutely no constraints on what you can believe, there is no fun believing it. So the savage feuds continue between those who believe the aliens love us and those who believe they vivisect us; between the proponents of large grey men and the supporters of little green ones. But such matters no longer concern the outside world.
There is probably a more sinister explanation. Who needs to worry about malevolent inhuman beings trying to dominate the galaxy when we have our own dear Government, almost all of whose members, even the large grey ones, were in fact born on Earth?
Tomorrow: Vegetarianism, Whales, Xenophobia, Y and Zealotry.Reuse content