Magazine article New Internationalist

Who Needs Religion? Most People, in Most Times, in Most Culture, It Seems. David Boulton Examines the Persistent Religious Itch

Magazine article New Internationalist

Who Needs Religion? Most People, in Most Times, in Most Culture, It Seems. David Boulton Examines the Persistent Religious Itch

Article excerpt

THERE was a time, beginning around the 1850s and culminating perhaps in the 1920s, when it really did seem that the jig was up for organized religion - at least in the Western world. Poet Matthew Arnold had caught a whiff of its death in 1859 with Dover Beach, where he mourned 'the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar' of the sea of faith, 'retreating, to the breath of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world'. Others rejoiced at the death of God and mocked those who mourned his passing. But whether they mourned or celebrated the twilight of gods, devils and things that go bump in the night, educated folk shared a sense that religion was on its way out.

In Europe a new secularist nationalism was replacing the tired old frameworks of superstition. In Britain churchgoing went out of fashion, morality began to be defined in humanist and humanitarian terms and for a time, in the industrial north, the Socialist Sunday School movement, singing from its god-forsaking hymn-sheet, looked like rivalling the 'I am H-A-P-P-Y' Sunday schools in the churches and chapels.

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In the US a large slice of the then hugely influential Unitarian church, having disposed of two persons of the trinity, decided that even one was one too many and moved on to a kind of religious humanism where God was replaced by a gaseous 'Something-bigger-than-ourselves'. (It is hard to recollect that the American liberal tradition was once far more powerful than Bible-bashing fundamentalism). And from 1917 on, tens of thousands of churches in the USSR were turned into museums and warehouses as religion was commanded to wither away - helped, when it failed to wither fast enough, by a sharp dose of the gulags.

But tides turn, and this one rolled back over Arnold's naked shingles of the world with an even louder roar than that which had marked its retreat. The growing complexities and insecurities of the 20th century paved the way for a triumphal return of the old certainties, promises, reassurances. God was resurrected. Today, 20 million grown-up Americans and 33 per cent of the Republican Party believe the Rapture is imminent, when Christ will return to allow born-again evangelicals to share with him in divine governance of the universe. Hollywood finds the flagellation of Jesus a bigger turn-on than the female orgasm. The Rapture books in the Left Behind series - you'll be left behind unless you get washed in the blood of the lamb - outsell Harry Potter.

In Britain, the churches continue to empty, but the 'mind/body/spirit' shelves in our bookshops groan under the weight of tomes recommending a thousand varieties of bottled spiritualities - three for the price of two. One in ten men and one in four women tell pollsters they think there's something in reincarnation. One in three women say they believe in angels, particuarly the guardian variety. Churches, both Orthodox and those planted by Western telly-evangelists, flourish in the new Russia. Africa is awash with mission-planted happy-clappy churchianity. God is invoked by all sides in what is sometimes still called, with apparently unconscious irony, 'the Holy Land'. And above all, a century after free-thinkers organized God's funeral, two monstrous, murderous religious fundamentalisms square up to each other, for God's sake and in his name, to devour the world's precarious stability.

Those who made their humanist sand-castles on Dover beach as the sea of faith retreated, failed to anticipate that what had ebbed could flow back with a vengeance, demolishing their works and their dreams.

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Is religion, then, inevitable? Do we need it, as we need food, drink and sex? Do we, after all, have some kind of god-shaped gene which defies even the most ingenious genetic modification? Are we made with a religious itch which we must scratch - perhaps 'the itch whereof thou canst not be healed' which, along with 'the emerods' and 'a sore botch in the knees and in the legs', God promised fallen humanity in Deuteronomy 28: 27-35? …

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