There are a billion points of light

The festival now is concerned with the gratification of every desire
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Darkness closes round our silver tower. The wilderness around us in London's new Docklands cannot be seen; only the lights of half a century's dreaming spread out behind our own reflections in the windows. from this bubble in the sky, the dreams a ll seem the same.

To the north is municipal socialism; to the west, capitalism, and to the south a quiet suburban decency. And all alike appear as patterns of light, spread out there for our entertainment, nothing more. We have come to a kind of nowhere: everybody knows this is Utopia.

Everything boring, everything painful, and almost everything recognisably human has gone into the dark. This is the world as entertainment, and it is the way that much of the rich world wants to live. One of the effects of this modern atmosphere is to destroy religion. Against consumerism, Christianity twines like fog around this tower, and then it fades away.

Sometimes it fades into sententious prosing, and sometimes into a sort of sterilised benevolence. Sometimes it fades into pure charlatanry, like the promises of Moris Cerullo that his poorest followers will soon become rich if only they send him what little they have. Often it fades into fundamentalism.

All these things happen primarily because liberal democracies have substituted preferences for the notion of absolute truth.

"What is truth?" asked Pilate.

"What would you like?" reply the market researchers.

This is in many ways a very civilised substitution. The idea that a government or a party can possess all truth has led to such horrors in this century that the rich and peaceable nations of Europe have become suspicious of the idea that any government could possess any part of the truth, just as the wars of religion in the 17th century led to a generalised revulsion towards all forms of religious enthusiasm or certainty. The only states in Europe at the moment absolutely confident of what a good citizen must do are those at war.

None the less, human societies cannot survive without some public and generally accepted idea of truth. Too much scepticism is as corroding as too little. Of course, the idea of truth has not vanished altogether from public life. people still have very strong ideas about truth and falsehood, wrong and right, but on a domestic scale. They do not, somehow, scale up to a national level very well; and when they do, they do not form any rational pattern.

This shows in all sorts of ways: the incoherent viciousness of our criminal justice system, which punishes everyone except the politician responsible for it; the sudden arbitrary attacks on some public figures for vices such as adultery, which are cheerfully condoned in others. Indeed, the idea of conviction or sincerity in public life seems intrinsically suspect. The then Mrs Thatcher had convictions. Ian Paisley is sincere; and Gerry Adams, too.

Scepticism makes its mark again in the incoherence of public religion. There is obviously less Christianity about than 100 years ago; but there is also less principled rationalism, and very much more superstition. A nation in which incomparably more people read and half-believe their horoscopes than go to church has not grown out of supernaturalism; it has simply lost the knack of thinking about serious matters. At least when the Church of England mattered, people had something worthwhile to disbelieve.

Christmas might seem the time when commercialism celebrates its greatest triumphs. As the festival is celebrated today, it has almost nothing to do with a proclamation of public truth, that the redeemer of the world was born in Bethlehem, and almost everything to do with the triumph of the wish, and the gratification of desire and preference. No wonder it is a peak time for suicides and divorces.

Yet this picture conceals innumerable private acts of charity and love. Most of the shopping is done to gratify other people, not the shoppers. Most of the presents given are chosen with thought. Real and successful efforts are made to bring comfort to the lonely, the poor, and the homeless. In such immediate examples of goodwill we can see - even from this tower - a billion points of light.