Sunday 4 April 2010

Everywhere and nowhere

Yet another post about religion: but that seems fitting this weekend. Writing in the Guardian, Cole Morton surveys the British religious landscape at Easter:
The Roman Catholic hierarchy remains engulfed in the scandal of abusive priests. The Church of England [...] is struggling to cope with the loss of its status, wealth and most of its people.

Neither organisation can muster a million followers on a Sunday, and attendance has fallen for the fifth year in a row. The pews may fill a little more this weekend, but on the whole people don't want to belong anything, let alone a needy, demanding church.
But, argues Morton, this doesn't mean that people have stopped believing. Instead, he celebrates 'the rise of a new national faith', which he calls 'the Church of Everywhere':
The Church of Everywhere consists of all those people who believe in a god of some kind but don't belong to a religious organisation. [...] They don't have a collective voice because they are each doing their own thing. But they are certainly in the majority.
And where does Moreton find evidence of this new spiritual sensibility?
You can see it at Stonehenge for solstice, or at festivals, as people seek the divine in the open air. Even new forms of morris dancing, most eccentric of 'traditional' pursuits, have become a way for people to express their spirituality outdoors.

They are part of the new faith, which doesn't mind what your god is called. Improvised, individualistic and hard to pin down, it does still have some identifiable collective values, including fair play, individual freedom and the notion of the Earth as a sacred space.
I think there's a grain of truth in Moreton's description, but I take issue both with aspects of his analysis and with his celebratory tone. While it's true that, over a long period, traditional religion has been losing both its appeal and its influence, it would be a mistake to overlook the continuing strength (and modern revival) of more conservative versions, such as evangelical Christianity and fundamentalist Islam.

Moreton correctly identifies the ecological and individualistic strains in contemporary popular thinking, but he's in danger of confusing disparate phenomena and claiming too much for his new multi-faith religiosity. The trouble with 'spirituality' is that it can be made to include pretty much anything: morris dancing as an expression of faith is taking it a bit far, I think. And surely there's a contradiction in arguing that the new spirituality is all about doing your own thing, and at the same time claiming that these 'improvised, individualistic' pursuits are part of some larger collective movement.

Moreton wants us to believe that the current popular interests in 'paganism, Buddhism and the green movement' are not only connected with each other, but somehow part of the same phenomenon as the mourning for Princess Diana and Jade Goody's funeral. He argues that the latter event 'put the new faith of the people on display, live on television with white doves, party balloons and lots of tears', adding:
The crowds watching on screens outside gasped at the home videos and blinked back tears at slushy songs. I was there, and this was powerful stuff that worked for people.
Again, Moreton has captured some kind of shift in the collective psyche. The lapsed Catholic in me is tempted to describe it as the return of the Catholic repressed, a half-conscious popular yearning for a sense of ritual meaning that was lost in the transition to modernity. But whether it can be described as a new form of faith, rather than yet another symptom of a consumerist celebrity culture, I'm not sure.

But even if Moreton has identified something real stirring in the collective imagination, both the lapsed Christian and the secular humanist in me question his excitement at this new all-embracing, content-free spiritual 'movement'. Traditional Christians (and Jews, and Muslims) would argue that true faith leads to selfless action in the interest of others. But Moreton's Church of Everywhere appears to encourage a narcissistic absorption in one's own feelings which has more in common with pop psychology and the self-improvement industry.

And then there's the suspicion that this new faith-lite is little more than a popular version of the 'faith in faith' peddled by the likes of Stanley Fish, Terry Eagleton and Karen Armstrong. The crowds blinking back tears at Goody's funeral and the rhetorical manoeuvres of the multi-faithists are both caught up in a cloying sentimentalism: a sense that it doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you believe in something. Don't worry whether it's true, just feel the faith.

This Easter, humanists and traditional believers can unite in their rejection of this worrying irrationalism.


Eve Garrard said...

Very nice critique, Martin, all of which sounds dead right to me. And a conventionally religious person could also agree with everything you say here, and still think that the hunger which this narcissistic stuff is feeding is genuine, but can ultimately be satisfied only by something more demanding than faith-lite (what a neat phrase!)

Have a good Easter holiday. Eve

Martin said...

Thanks for the comment, Eve. My post was a bit rushed (busy packing to go away,) so the more nuanced response to the genuine aspiration behind the 'new' spirituality will have to wait for another time..but I agree it shouldn't be simply dismissed.

Martin Meenagh said...

Martin--that was an excellent post. Have an excellent time wherever it is that you are off to. Vaya con dios and so forth....

Minnie said...

Excellent analysis, Martin. Content-free spirituality isn't spirituality at all: these characters who claim, typically, that they're 'spiritual but not religious' seem to me to be claiming the moral high ground simply on the basis that they believe in something (or 'anything' as GKChest. is supposed to have said!): belief is only half of the equation - leaves morality wide open (often to the detriment of some who might otherwise have been helped - Baby P; child brides ...). But you're right about this widespread approval of 'faith-lite' allowing creeping growth of fundamentalism in all creeds.
Word verif having a good, old sneer at me today: it says 'creedge'!