The survey of organised religion, released this week, shows that Scientology and Pentecostalism are the two fastest growing forms of faith in Britain. This would be comical if it weren’t so … disastrous. Scientologists believe that ‘thetans’ are immortal beings with numerous past lives, including those from ‘extraterrestrial cultures’, that have taken root in human bodies. Pentecostals have a more or less literal belief in the bible, indulge in ‘possession’ in their services and ‘speaking in tongues’.

We are told to respect all faiths but these are beliefs it is hard to warm to. What these surveys never explore, to my knowledge, is whether these clearly absurd views affect other areas of the believers lives. Does believing something that is clearly wrong (let’s not beat about the bush here) affect us all? By encouraging absurd beliefs, these ‘religions’ hold their members back from participating fully in modern society. At least the Anglican (and to an extent the Roman Catholic) faiths have engaged with the modern world (eventually) and it is possible to be both modern and Anglican or Catholic (just). Imagine what Britain would be like if Scientology and Pentecostalism took over as our dominant religions. Imagine Parliament speaking in tongues (I know, I know, some of them do anyway).

On the other hand, maybe this madness was where religion was always going to end up. As a kind of comic sideshow.

This was new to me. When he was sent to America, in 1943, to be part of the Manhattan (Atom Bomb) Project, Rudolf Peierls, the nuclear physicist, who was a British naturalised German emigre, first worked in a skyscraper in downtown New York, near Wall Street. The building had a most unusual safety feature in its lifts or elevators. Each lift fitted so snugly into the shaft that, in an emergency, a falling lift would act like a piston, compressing the air below it, which would act like a cushion. Nice in theory, but still scary.

From: Rudolf Peierls, Bird of Passage, Princeton University Press, 1985.

Has anyone else noticed the explosion of psychology as news? Every day now, the newspapers are awash in this survey or that. For newspapers it’s cheap news, of course, certainly compared with having reporters on the Macedonia border or embedded in Raqqa, and it reflects our ongoing obsession with ourselves. Some of the survey samples are very small, and the results are often contradictory. Over the next few weeks, I am going to (try) to draw attention to some of the surveys, give their results and try to put some context around what they have come up with.
I was particularly taken with a French study, which showed that more people are bored in France than anywhere else in Europe. This is so, apparently, partly because France is a heavily nationalised state, and more people there than elsewhere have jobs in nationalised industries. Many of these jobs are in fact non-jobs. In one revealing case, the individual concerned started work at 8.30 am and, on average, had to deal with eight (that’s 8) emails a day. As a result, his working day was usually over by 9.05 am and he was staring at seven-and-a-half hours of doing not very much. No wonder he was bored stiff for most of the time.

But the French – or the French unions – are adamant that their system doesn’t need to change, that “Anglo-Saxon” work habits (frantically busy, snatched sandwich lunches) are inimical to civilisation. But there is more to life than an agreeable lunch, n’est-ce pas? As Freud for one pointed out, work and love are the two most important ingredients in a happy/satisfied life. So, perhaps, after answering eight emails, our Frenchman has seven-and-a-half hours to re-arrange his love life. Very civilised.

This is not really a blog, more an advert for my new book, which has different titles in the UK and USA. The British title is THE AGE OF NOTHING, while the American title is THE AGE OF ATHEISTS. The subtitle for both editions is: ‘How we have sought to live since the death of god.’
I am not sure which title I prefer but the British title, in case anyone is wondering, refers to two things: one, that, after the death of god, we have nothing similar to replace him with, so we are left to our own devices, and the book explores the devices that some of our best secularists have conceived. And two, it refers to the fact that even for the religious we are in an age of nothing, for the latest theology interprets god as indefinable, unknowable, and accepts that we will never have any evidence of ‘his’ existence.
The book starts with Nietzsche’s pronouncement in the early 1880s to the effect that ‘God is Dead and we humans have killed him.’ Of course there had been atheists before that, but it is really only since then that influential atheists have been around in sufficient numbers for us to call the last 130 years The Age of Atheists. And how interesting it has been. Atheists’ secular thought is just more varied – and the actual texts more beautiful – than recent religious thought.

Why Are Faith Schools So Successful?

Here is a conundrum. At least, it’s a conundrum to me. Across the Middle East – most recently and most obviously in Egypt – people are wary of religion, the closed and inward-looking nature of belief, knowing only too well that life is too messy to be limited by the ancient ‘truisms’ from a simpler and long-vanished era.

At the same time, in Britain at least, people – even secular people – are falling over themselves, so it would seem, to send their children to faith schools. They do so, they say, on the entirely pragmatic grounds that the examination results of faith schools justify their decision. Statistics appear to bear them out and the British government recently recognized this, agreeing that the Church of England could play more of a role in British schools, albeit without forcing the Christian (or any) religion down the throats of those children whose parents don’t want it.

What is going on here? Why is there this apparent disjunction across the world, and why do faith schools do so well?

Could a clue be found in the recent experiment, also carried out in British schools, to allow pupils to start their academic day at 10.00 a.m. and not 9.00, as has been traditional, allowing them more time in bed?

Does this mark an (admittedly very belated) recognition that children are not adults and shouldn’t necessarily be expected to conform to adult practices? The experiment of allowing some pupils to ‘lie in’ seems to have been a success so far, although it has not been widely implemented.

Is something similar at work in faith schools? Like many – I would say most – people of my generation, I was raised in a school where Christianity was taken for granted, where its stories, rituals and rhythms were part of the mental furniture of my early years. This didn’t stop me losing my faith when I was thirteen or fourteen, after which I discovered soon enough that being an adult was and is more interesting, in all sorts of ways, than being a child.

But my point is this (and I am not advocating what follows, merely trying to understand the success of faith schools): perhaps young children are not ready for the hurly-burly of secular life, the many enjoyable but conflicting and ambiguous lineaments of thought that the average adult encounters. Perhaps they are too busy learning all-important facts about the world and their brains are not developed enough, yet, to be able to cope with more abstract issues. Sharing the history and rituals of a faith may not have anything to do with religious belief as such – its truth or otherwise – but it may simply simplify intellectual life when simplification matters.

Nicholas Humphrey, the psychologist, argues that children should be taught religion as history – the good along with the bad (for example, the Inquisition), and that all religions should be included in this. I think this is an excellent idea, but I wonder how early children can be guided through the issues that so divide adults. Sharing – intellectually and emotionally – is an important preparation for adulthood. Maybe faith schools keep their pupils’ minds clearer for other, arguably more important, matters.