James Harkin: As an atheist, I believe in proper religions

The battle for religion is too important to be left to the minority who still believe in God
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The Independent Online

After 16 years as a thoroughly lapsed Irish Catholic, the moment of my religious rebirth can be traced to the unlikely environs of a Westminster pub. Chatting with a senior politician over a drink, he let slip that he was spending his afternoons lying prostrate on someone else's bed. So far, so routine - but in this case our elected representative was being healed by the invisible "chi" of a Reiki master.

After 16 years as a thoroughly lapsed Irish Catholic, the moment of my religious rebirth can be traced to the unlikely environs of a Westminster pub. Chatting with a senior politician over a drink, he let slip that he was spending his afternoons lying prostrate on someone else's bed. So far, so routine - but in this case our elected representative was being healed by the invisible "chi" of a Reiki master.

The story is a familiar one. Scratch the surface of our apparently godless age and it is possible to find a whole web of inter-connected beliefs. Spend enough time with the merchant banker and you will find a passionate advocate of yogic flying. Get to know the apparently cynical media type and sooner or later it emerges that she spends her spare time floating in a tank.

While the grip of traditional religions such as Christianity and Judaism loosens, it is obvious that many of us have yet to shrug off the urge to believe. Freed from the demands of traditional religion, we are not more enlightened but are slaves to a burgeoning palette of alternative spiritualities. Our basic human belief for a way of understanding our place in the world has been channelled into everything from alternative therapies to astrology to exotic hybrids of eastern religion.

Far from being narrowly selfish, many of us seem to spend vast amounts of time - and generous helpings of our money - attempting to break out of the consumerist spiral in favour of something more meaningful. So-called "spiritual spending", according to the researchers, now accounts for £670mevery year. Servicing the need for a spiritual fix is one of the biggest growth industries of the new century.

The popularity of detoxifying products and services, for example, is because they resemble religious purification rituals. Spa waters, likewise, can be seen as the successor to the faith healing and holy waters of organised religion. The bath, invented for the simple purpose of cleaning ourselves, is fast being adapted for the ceremony of communing with a higher being - ourselves. The marketers have even invented a clumsy new marketing category - the "re-enchanters" - to describe the people prepared to shell out for something worth believing in.

But all belief systems are not equal, and we should baulk at having to treat them as such. While politicians huff and puff about fundamentalism and the dangers of religious hatred, the real threat to public life comes from their inability to believe in anything bigger than ourselves. Whereas traditional religion was forged within shared experiences, the new believers prefer to turn inwards in search of a spiritual cure.

This is privatised religion, inimical to any sense of a broader community or political life and hitched to no cause but a narrow, deadening solipsism. Love thy neighbour has been elbowed out of their moral vocabulary in favour of the new dictate: love thy inner self, and to hell with anyone who gets in the way. Worse, the stoicism and solace that many found in our belief in God has been replaced by emotional incontinence and a creed which believes in nothing more than the perfection of the psyche.

All this should be inimical to our religious and political leaders. With their emphasis on external organisation and the community of believers, the major Western religions did much to shore up the bonds of community life. But the truth is that the retreat of organised religion has disorientated our institutions in ways which we have yet to recognise.

Prince Charles, ostensibly the next Supreme Governor of the Church of England, parrots a brand of theology which has more in common with western Buddhism than with traditional, Pauline Christianity. The wife of our Prime Minister, ostensibly a strict Catholic, seems to derive greater succour from feng shui than from Holy Communion. Much of what now passes for traditional religious instruction is a muddled hybrid of eastern religions and American self-help jargon. Perhaps what we find so discomforting about the fundamentalists is not the eccentric content of their beliefs but that the fact that they still take belief seriously.

The battle for religion is too important to be left to the minority who still believe in God. For progressives, the flaky and anti-social successors to organised religion should be seen as a dangerous blockage in the arteries of social life, preventing fresh new ideas from winning an audience and new communities of interest from raising their head. If no-one else is prepared to do it, those of us who believe in society and community - especially those who, like me, are convinced atheists - should stand up for the Judaeo-Christian heritage, the better to explode some bombs under the alternative belief systems, which are soaking up the desire for meaningful social and political engagement.

The slow death of organised religion in British society has left a vacuum which has yet to be filled. Until we find something better to believe in, we should be more militant in defending what we have. The next time someone suggests you chill out, realign your chakras or detox your life, take a deep breath and tell them to get lost. You have nothing to lose but your chi.

The author is director of Talks at the Institute of Contemporary Arts

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