Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: Oh, we Brits of little faith

The real successor to religion is not science but our glib, fast-fix culture
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The Independent Online

No God, please: we're British. A recent survey showed that most Britons associate Christmas with kindness, not with Christ. Religion was once forbidden at British dinner tables. It now seems neglected in British churches and mosques. Formerly, hostesses banned it because it might arouse passion. Now clergy avoid it because it cannot excite interest. Sermons are about society, not salvation. Alastair Campbell spoke for England when he said we don't do God. The British now respond to religion with the embarrassment once provoked only by sex. How did this land of saints and sects lose religious vehemence and vocation? Four answers are commonly suggested, all of them wrong.

Some people give science the blame or credit. But there is room for both science and religion, except in narrow minds. When science claims exclusive rights to truth it does not displace religion, it becomes a faith with its own dogmas, prophets and gods: the unquestionable truths of evolution, Dawkins' frightening eyes, the divinely bearded Darwin. Science, at most, makes God an unnecessary hypothesis, not an unreasonable one. For the religiously inclined, science is part of creation, perhaps the key to understanding it - even a means of insight into the mind of God. For those with no sense of transcendence or inclination to metaphysics, science satisfies curiosity. Uninterest in religion is not a consequence of scientistic thinking, but a cause of it.

Prosperity and progress, according to a theory dear to some secularists, make religion wither. Materialism is a more effective opiate. Poverty - so the theory goes - needs piety to make deprivation bearable, whereas wealth can anaesthetise misery with glut. Yet the poor are usually too busy surviving to worry about being saved. Religion is a luxury which you need leisure to observe, and it is easier to renounce riches as a means to sainthood than to rejoice in wretchedness. The richest and most self-consciously progressive society in today's world is that of the US, where religious sentiment, language and practice are rife, albeit superficial. Even where I work, in Massachusetts - reputedly the most secular state in the union - it is hard to keep God out of a conversation.

Individualism, a virtue or vice in which Britons think they excel, is widely canvassed as a cause of irreligion. For religious life is common: a stint in a hermit's cell can restore a worshipper's hunger to commune, but private religion usually ends up as feeble pantheism or futile anomie. The man who worships "in his own way" disguises self-indulgence as faith. But laziness, not individualism, is to blame for it. The case of the US proves it. In the self-proclaimed "land of the free", people treat individualism as a social value. Shrinks encourage their clients to "feel good about yourself". A sense of guilt is an un-American activity. No one speaks of sin - only, at most, of "inappropriate behaviour". Complacency about one's life is a disincentive to think about death: to speak of death is a social bêtise. Yet churches are crowded and God is not crowded out. On the contrary: individualism nourishes religion as an antidote to egotism.

Religion, however, does inspire fear. The British are sometimes said to avoid it in the interests of public safety. God is a dangerous topic. The Irish troubles have given Britain recent experience of religiously inspired, or religiously justified, violence. Historical memories of the persecution of Catholics and dissenters have not quite faded. Loose talk of a coming "clash of civilisations" drives people towards panic. Looser talk about "war on terror" takes on, in some mouths, the timbre of a crusade. The relatively sudden growth of new religious minorities - especially of Muslims - has provoked anxiety that religious warfare might start all over again. In a precariously multicultural society and a fragile, multi-civilisational world, the best way to avoid conflict is to avoid controversy.

None of this thinking, however, ought logically to lead to evasiveness about religion. Few people understand or care about differences of creed. It is differences of culture - of dress, language, lifestyle, taste - that ignite prejudice and cause mutual discomfort; and they usually have little to do with faith. Nowadays, religious priorities are more likely to unite people than divide them. Ecumenism has drawn the fangs of disunity. Rival religions could indulge in conflicts when they had no secular enemies. Now mullahs, priests and parsons make common cause against the profanities of pragmatism, permissiveness and moral relativism. The Pope makes allies of Muslims and schismatics by candid avowals of difference and the pursuit of shared values.

Nor should Britons fear that religious controversy will erode Britishness. British religion - if there is such a thing - is so vague that diversity of faith could never imperil it. In Alan Bennett's play, Forty Years On, a headmaster in a catechism class sums up the great tradition of British indifference to dogma: "Trinity? Three in One, One in Three. Any doubts about that: see your maths master." The threat to British identity in modern Britain comes not from Muslim immigrants, but from British natives, who have abandoned all their own traditional marks of identity. They have let their reserve slip, their upper lips wobble and their sangfroid warm up. They are unrecognisable as the heirs of their ancestors.

The real successor to religion in today's Britain is not science, secularism or relativism, but a new form of superstition: fast-fix thinking that eschews whatever is strenuous in favour of glib solutions, infused like coffee powder. Bad education has filleted critical intelligence out of Britons' response to the world. Religion, if it is to mean anything, has to be challenged, debated and dappled with doubt. It is hard. It takes time. People who go to quack remedies for healing, horoscopes for guidance, television for entertainment, the web for information, McDonald's for nourishment and microwaves for réchauffés are not likely to reach a far heaven in searching for God. A couch potato nation, unsurprisingly, finds no comfort in pews.

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