Leading Article: Why we hunt the Holy Grail

Click to follow
The Independent Online
So they have found the Holy Grail in Rugby. And why not? Actually, when you think about it, Rugby is rather a good place. It lies at the heart of England. It is probably at the intersection of all the major ley lines south of the Celtic fringe. Don't bother to write in if it isn't. We will be able to think of another reason for its aptness. Dignum et justum est.

Oh, it is easy to mock. It may be that the skull of the beast of Bodmin turned out to be the innards of a leopard-skin rug. Or so the scientists would have us believe when they say that the cranium was infected with the eggs of a tropical cockroach - of a kind not normally found in Cornwall. Not normally. Ah, but it is not normality of which we speak. If it were normal, would we be so intrigued?

Nothing is so firmly believed as that we least know, said Montaigne. We know little of the sexual habits of aliens, which is why the Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard psychiatrist who has recorded the evidence of people who say they were abducted by little grey men has produced a best-seller. The more unlikely things may seem, the more there is to be gained from believing in them.

Science was supposed to have put an end to all this. "In view of the silliness of the majority of mankind," Bertrand Russell once said, "a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible." But in so many ways that hoary old sceptic turned out to be not so much an idiot savant as a savant idiot.

The Age of Religion was succeeded by the Age of Enlightenment; but what has followed is not so much the Age of Incredulity as the Age of Consent. With the decline of traditional religion, science has simply given New Age forms to the old superstitious needs - and with our complicity.

In a post-scientific age the things we need to believe cannot, by definition, be scientifically explained. So if the forthcoming BBC film of scientists dissecting a dead alien, which we were told was shot in the New Mexico desert in 1947, turns out to be modern and tampered with, we can always summon some other more far-fetched explanation.

Once we are determined to believe, the very absurdity of our doctrines confirms us in our faith. And woe to those who might endeavour to erase them.