STREET CREDULITY; AN A TO Z: If you're Aries, I'm a Buddhist

In the first of a series that explores what we really believe in, Andrew Brown and Paul Vallely cross fingers and think slim
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Astrology

The idea that the force which patterns the heavens also determines human behaviour has been around since at least the third millennium BC. Out of favour in the epoch of post-Enlightenment rationalism, it has made an extraordinary comeback over the past 50 years.

At the top end of the market it was promoted by Carl Gustav Jung, who used it as a diagnostic aid. But the mass consumers of the astrology columns do not read Jung. For them, the attraction must be that astrology is the clearest possible expression of the faith that, in spite of all the evidence, individual human lives matter to the universe.

Once this central attraction is grasped, it is easy to see why nothing can diminish the hold that astrologers have on the popular imagination. At one time they were concerned with auguries on matters of state, but the fate of the individual soon crept in; the first known horoscope was cast for a child born on 29 April 410 BC.

What they sell today has nothing to do with the future and with virtually unfalsifiable predictions. Horoscopes sell the belief that the universe really does revolve around each individual reader; compared with this overwhelming truth, a few minor false predictions are beneath consideration.

Which is perhaps why the prominence of star-gazers in newspaper columns is usually in inverse proportion to the paper's regard for the truth.

Buddhism

Here we have the astrology of the middle classes, offering all the joys of belief, and nothing to believe in. Buddhism is the fastest growing Eastern religion in the West. It offers a kind of spirituality that does not need to be attached to any particular myth (except, perhaps, the myth that all Buddhists are peace-loving vegetarians).

This is why the Dalai Lama is one of the most respected men in the world today - and why the Pope singled out Buddhism for attack in a recent book as "in large measure an 'atheistic' system".

As well as all that, Buddhism is fashionable. It is the only religion that a Hollywood star can profess to without being too mocked for it, as Richard Gere has done. Footballers do it, too: the Roman Catholic Church in Italy has fulminated against Roberto Baggio for leading youth astray. It is more likely that he is only following them astray.

It is, of course, not too fashionable. Of the world's 1 billion Buddhists, only around 25,000 adherents are to be found in the UK. But the influence of Buddhist practices such as meditation spreads wider, across the whole of the New Age movement. In Britain, there are probably more teachers of enlightenment than Church of England lay readers.

Christianity

Still the dominant religion of this country. There are more practising Christians than practising members of all the other religions put together, by some margin: on an average Sunday, the pews contain around 1.3 million Roman Catholics, 1.2 million Anglicans, 700,000 Methodists, plus assorted Nonconformists.

The difficulty for mainstream churches is that there the available pool of non-practising Christians is shrinking. Seventy-five per cent of Britons claim to believe in God, but what they mean by that would be unintelligible to most churchgoers.

The crisis is most evident in the Church of England. Its traditional function was to provide a framework of agreed doctrine in which everyone could fail to believe. But this coherence has vanished. It is still true that no one really believes what the C of E teaches; but most people don't even know what it teaches either. The number of Christians is slowly growing again, after almost a century of unremitting decline. But they are becoming more and more a self-conscious minority. The idea that Christianity is the natural state of an Englishman, from which it is unusual or unnatural to deviate, has died. Formal disestablishment will probably follow, but only by accident. Not enough people care to make it a big issue, one way or the other.

Dieting

Once known as fasting, the practice of starvation for spiritual gain has never really waned in popularity. People used to do it to make themselves attractive to God, and in imitation of Christ. Now more women than ever before do it, in imitation of Christy Turlington. It does not seem to bring them peace or any assurance of being loved.

Tomorrow: Evangelism, Fitness, Gurus and Healing

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