Leading Article : Suburbia turns to Buddha

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The Independent Online
It must be galling for those who bemoan the decline of Christian observance in Britain to see that Eastern religions are thriving here. Witness the opening in Wales of an ordination centre for Buddhist women. Equally, anyone passing a mosque during yesterday's feast of Eid could hardly have missed the numerous Islamic community marking the end of Ramadan. All this is in a week when the beginning of Lent, the Christian preparation for Easter, probably passed most people by on Wednesday.

Meanwhile the Hindu temple in Bhaktivedanta Manor at Letchmore Heath has grown so popular that it has created a serious traffic problem and excited the ire of villagers. Such difficulties are only a dream for the Protestant churches whose immediate concerns relate more to empty pews and redundant buildings. Roman Catholics, for their part, have to contend with a lack of priests.

Eastern religions are increasingly meeting a need that their Western counterparts would be wise to study. What, the country's bishops and moderators might ask, explains the success of faiths which are booming even though they have few of the historical and cultural advantages that Christianity enjoys here?

The appeal of Islam is perhaps the simplest to understand. Despite the large number of Muslims it probably represents least competition to Christian rivals. It remains largely a faith of migrants and their British-born children. There are a few, exceptional converts among indigenous Britons, but in the main Islam today binds together migrant communities of diverse origin, be they Arab, Afro-Caribbean or Asian.

British Islam is maintaining their allegiance because it is developing from a legalistic faith of rural migrants into one that speaks to the needs of their urbanised and Westernised children. By adapting to British culture, it promises to become a vital bridge between Islam generally and the Western world. Sikhism and Hinduism may follow a similar path. However, it seems unlikely that, for now at least, these particular religions will extend far beyond their core communities and capture the allegiance of Britons who have traditionally subscribed to Christianity but who in ever increasing numbers are now agnostic or atheist.

The rise of Buddhism is a different story. Its impact on British life has derived not from immigration but from its inherent appeal to urban, educated Westerners, disillusioned with European values. It has won converts among those who have lost faith in both traditional British organised religion and the supposed modern certainties that science has offered. Buddhism, like some other Asian faiths, addresses a continuing Western thirst for spirituality and mysticism that an increasingly logical, rational society fails to satisfy.

Philosophies such as Buddhism are based on an ancient canon of work, predating Christianity, that deals with humanity's relationship with nature and the outside world. In an age when environmentalism and personal alienation have become preoccupations, particularly of young, urban Westerners, these religions offer a means for individuals to place themselves harmoniously and meaningfully in the natural world.

Christianity has had it nature lovers: St Francis of Assisi was the most celebrated. But in the main Christianity has been wary of those seeking kinship with nature for fear of a relapse into the paganism that Christianity supplanted. Indeed supposedly Christian cultures, such as the United States, have tended to have a hostile relationship with nature, seeing it as something to be tamed and conquered.

Christianity also has a tradition of hierarchy that is inimical to an urbanised Western society. It presumes a relationship between the individual and God with, in the case of Roman Catholicism, the clergy acting as an intermediary. In contrast, Buddhism eschews a godhead and the cumbersome hierarchies that characterise Western Christianity. It is also highly adaptable to different cultural circumstances. Deracinated, it has spread from its Indian homelands to Nepal, Tibet, China, Japan, Burma and now the Western world.

The traffic of conversion is, of course, not one way. Christianity continues to secure conversions in Africa and Asia. But when it comes to Western youth, Buddhism and similar Eastern faiths emerge as modern and flexible, appealing to liberal city dwellers who want to choose their own religious way, find a harmony with nature and avoid outdated forms of hierarchy. The challenge now for Christianity is to recognise how much it fails to meet their particular needs.