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The Enchanted Isle

Britain’s Channel 4 has just wound up a superb documentary series of the type that Channel 4 does consistently well. The final instalment of ‘Do you believe in magic?’ was aired yesterday evening and dealt with faith in Britain today. If the programme-makers are to be believed (and they put their case together very credibly I must say) then Britain is not quite the country even I thought it to be.

When less than 1 out of every 10 people in this country regularly attend Church and where politicians and even Church leaders shy away from mentioning God for fear of being seen as a bit soft in the head, one can reasonably infer that Britain is the most ruggedly secular country in the Western world and a place where scientific rationalism has triumphed.

Well, not true. Running underneath the dominant current of default secularism and starkly juxtaposed against dwindling interest in traditional worship, Britain is positively teeming with wiccans, pagans, shamanists, holistic spiritualists, mediums, druids, tarot readers and cultists of just about every imaginable stripe and description. This includes a peculiarly English version of enviromentalism which is much more about nature-worship than anti-everything agitprop and which is a curiously arcane echo of pre-Christian Britain. The ‘Old Gods’, it seems, have been making something of a comeback. This is not so much post-modernism as pre-modernism. But this is not to say that Christianity has been abandoned because another observable phenomenon is the rapid spread of evangelical Christianity in Britain and which is proving increasingly popular among those who find comfort in the return to ‘ecstatic’ worship as opposed to the stiff-upper lip formality of the established Church of England.

In fact, it seems that the Church of England has been the big loser here. Having failed to respond adequately to the spiritual pain induced by the carnage of World War I it went on to make a ‘faustian pact’ with scientific progress, conceding what it viewed as the outdated and unsupportable ‘myths’ of Christian faith in favour of the sedate promotion of general ‘niceness’ which, over time, has transmuted into the amplification of left-wing ‘social justice mummery.

The result is that Church has been deserted by its flock who started to look elsewhere in the search for spiritual fulfilment. And the search is prompted not by a failure of scientific rationalism but, conversely, by its triumph. The science, maths and industry which has brought us so much benefit has also unleashed atomic bombs, daisy cutters and biological weapons on the world. Everyone is aware of these dark, dangerous forces abroad in the world which they cannot control and yet could obliterate them. By a supreme twist of irony an inhabitant of the modern-day Britain may have the benefit of satellite digital TV, a microwave oven and and the internet yet still feel as awestruck and vulnerable as any medieval peasant.

And so they go looking for comfort, for succour, for a story that they can use to navigate the world and science for all its breathtaking wonder still doesn’t seem to do it for them. Science can dismiss the irrational but appears to be unable to defeat the irrational. But spirituality and faith is so compelling for so many precisely because it lies beyond proof and therefore satisfies the need for mystery.

One of the historians interviewed for the programme (I did not make a note of his name) speculated that an adaptive darwinian mechanism may be at work here and I find that explanation to be quite persuasive. Perhaps, as a species, we use faith as a tool to avoid a lapse into mass depression brought on by feelings of insignificance and futility. So conjuring Gods and monsters we banish from our lives the stark probability that we are nothing more than a strip of exotic chemicals which catalyse a brief flicker of consciousness and then nothing. It seems, for the sake of our species, we need to believe that there is more to it than that.

As for me, I have no faith and I practice no religion and that is because I have come to terms with fact that some belief may be of comfort but that doesn’t make it true. I do not believe that the ‘Old Gods’ are roaming the earth but I also realise that I am unlikely to be able to dissuade those who do.

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19 comments to The Enchanted Isle

  • Douglas R. Chandler

    Well I can’t find my copy of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” but I do remember him writing about the C of E catering to the needs and desires of the wealthy while the poor of the cities turned to the fundamentalists of the time. ” The poor can not afford the morality of the rich” is what I think he said. Here in the states the cycle continued. A main stream church would grow and the leadership would grow liberal, a confilict would arise between the liberals and the conservitives then the conservatives would leave and form a new church.

    I really liked his idea that preachers had to pass a physics test before they could preach but that would be the only requirement.

  • A point: The fact that belief is a comfort doesn’t make it untrue, either. That ‘adaptive darwinism’ explanation stinks to me of a desperate need NOT to believe in any unseen power. Perhaps it could be that there exists a plane of which we are aware on a deep level, and get glimpses of but don’t understand. Before man discovered electricity, he saw lightning; he didn’t understand how to harness it until later, and he wouldn’t have believed that electricity existed unseen all around us, but he knew about static shock.

    Could be that the ‘underlying need for mystery’ is an underlying knowledge of a nonphysical reality.

    2 Corinthians 4:6 — “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

  • Richard Cook

    Mr. Chandler, please don’t only site one side of the argument. Citing Adam Smith for religious opinion is like citing Elmer J. Fudd for advice on nuerosurgery. England is also the land that spawned the Wesley’s (C of E then Methodists) who reached the poor and indigent during the industrial revolution, William Wilberforce (maybe Cof E) who campaigned tirelessly for end of slavery so the C of E also did do some good things along with the houses of the faith that resulted from some of there failures (Methodism, Episcopal Church, etc). And I don’t think the liberal/conservative label applies, I think a better description is one side having a complacent faith vs. the other having a active faith.

  • Andrew Duffin

    “Before man discovered electricity, he saw lightning…”

    Exactly. And he invented magic, God(s), whatever you want, to “explain” things.

    But the more we understand, the less need we have to invent magic, or God(s). Within the ambit of most peoples’ lives, we now understand everything physical. Thunderbolts, asteroids, volcanoes, deadly plagues, all have submitted to raional explanation. Cosmology aside – which doesn’t bother most people very often, all that is left is the “what are we here for” bit.

    Accept that the whole answer is “for the benefit of each other and especially of the next generation”, and you have become a rational being. God is not required.

    It’s a hard thing to accept, but you can manage it if you think a bit.

  • I’m not sure that this is the right place for this, but, anyway…

    The realm of religion is that which cannot be proved nor disproved. In this regard, it is sharply distinct from science, whose realm is that which can be disproved. (And both are distinct from mathematics, which is the realm of that which can be proved.)

    Many persons who fancy themselves to be highly rational and hard-headed are unreasonably dismissive, even defamatory, toward religious belief. But the sphere of religion is like “gauge theory” in physics; it lies within those degrees of freedom that exist in the evidence provided by nature.

    No religion that required its communicants to accept disproven propositions could survive for even a generation, at least not if the evidence against those propositions were available to the flock. Religions that survive must bow to evidentiary discoveries and developments — and the major religions of the world have all done so.

    The approach to religion for the rational man, if he’s inclined in that direction, is via consideration of the amazing unities of existence: its lawfulness, its consistency, the scheme of orderliness that propagates from the smallest things we can observe to the largest ones. That’s what did it for me. As my Better Half put it, there are only two fundamental metaphysics available to Man:

    1. “God did it.”
    2. “Shit happens.”

    As has always been the case with metaphysics, neither of these is either provable or disprovable. You pays your money and you takes your chance.

    The non-religious — whose convictions I do not want to disturb — could do with a few moments consideration of one of the late James Blish’s major insights:

    “All knowledge goes through two parallel processes: the annunciation from noise into fact, and the disintegration back into noise again. The process involved is the drawing of increasingly finer distinctions. The result is an endless chain of theoretical catastrophes.

    “The residuum is faith.” (from A Case Of Conscience)

    That quote is from memory, as my copy of the novel isn’t to hand at the moment. But if faith — in the measurability and knowability of the physical world and its laws — is essential to science, it strikes me as prudent and tolerant that the non-religious not sneer at those of us who hold a faith in a realm where there can never be certainty this side of the grave.

  • S. Weasel

    You had to laugh at the generation which avowed that it could do without god, thanks very much, and immediately made a dash for the glowing crystal unicorn shamanistic aromatherapeutic druidical love vibrations. Yeah, that’ll show your parents and their stuffy old church.

    Still, I find “shit happens” ever so much easier to buy than “…and then the giant all-powerful grownup who lives in the sky reaches down and gives cancer to babies because he loves us.”

  • Andrew Duffin;

    “Accept that the whole answer is “for the benefit of each other and especially of the next generation”, and you have become a rational being.”

    Interesting. In order to be a rational being, I have to accept a crashing irrationality. If materialism is true, there is no meaning to life, and we aren’t here for anything. You can’t even say we’re here to pass on our genes; there’s no inherent virtue to the copying of organic chemicals. It just happens that if something keeps copying itself, you’ll have more of it as time goes on. But there’s no reason there should be more or less of anything, since nothing matters. If we have a telos, materialism is false.

    My point is, before you go saying the only reason we’re not materialist is because “it’s a hard thing to accept”, which carries the further implication that we won’t or can’t “think a bit” because we’re weak, make sure you accept the hard things necessarily contained in your own philosophy.

  • S. Weasel

    In order to be a rational being, I have to accept a crashing irrationality. If materialism is true, there is no meaning to life, and we aren’t here for anything.

    What’s irrational about that? Unflattering, yes. Irrational, no.

  • Read the quoted segment. He thinks there is a purpose to life.

  • Ady

    Not to be a crashing bore, but a strict rationalist would not be dismissive of the existence or potential existence of some “unseen power”, but rather of the localised relevance of such an entity.

    It is rationally defensible to say, “I have seen no compelling proof of said entity, so I will continue to live my life, make my choices, and interact with others as if such does not exist”; less rational to say, “No such entity exists.”

    The rationalist encountering lightning for the first time would neither attribute it to supernatural phenomena, nor pronounce that no other surprising meteorological phenomena exist.

    Consider a person who lives in a geographic region that has never experienced a hurricane; his only reference to such is the descriptions of others. One day he hears two descriptions of weather phenomena — first, a hurricane; second, a complete, localised solidification of the air, making movement impossible.

    Both are outside his realm of experience. Both descriptions are to be interpreted rationally. His lack of experience does not force the conclusion that neither phenomena exist, but rather that he will not bother boarding up his windows or purchasing some huckster’s “Air Dissolver(TM)”.

    A lack of proof for an idea doesn’t make it false, but it does suggest that I won’t be consulting it for planning my weekend.

    -ady

  • An important contribution, Aaron! It’s in line with C. S. Lewis’s underappreciated argument in The Abolition Of Man that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is” by logical argument alone. Thank you!

  • Excuse me, but I think I’ll skip the bongwater dormroom skepticism this time. Réne Descartes, considered by most to the the father of western skeptical thought, went through it all before. He concluded that God necessarily exists. I did, too. I pray that the author will come to the same conclusion as Descartes did.

  • Douglas R. Chandler

    Mr. Cook
    Yes I cited one side of the argument and I simplified for the sake of brevity, and I’m well aware of Wesley, the Salvation Army, the Navigator’s, et. al. and the good works that the C. of E. has done. However comparing Adam Smith to Elmer Fudd? Not to be offensive, but have you ever read the man? He was not against relilgion he just put forth the view (if I’m remembering correctly) that the ecomomics of it could stand some reforming. (Again I’m being overly simple.)

  • I have to wonder if there’s at least some parallel between the current religious goings-on in England and America’s Boomer revival of the ’60s and ’70s.

    In an old post on my site, I chided the public schools and churches of the “Silent Generation” for portraying Christianity as quaint, ineffectual ritual, rather than the dynamic force for individual and social renewal under such leadership as that of the Wesleys. (No, Christianity didn’t also give us witch burning and the Inquisition – its heretics did.) The schools had token pledges of allegiance and token Bible readings and token daily prayers that grinded against the Commandment not to use the name of God in vain.

    The ’60s spiritual revolution was born in part from dissatisfaction with the Silent Generation’s spiritual shallowness. The first wave sought to abandon what they felt was a sinking ship, and pursued anything that wasn’t traditional Christianity. The second wave included those who tried to bring the faith back to a romantic view of what it was in the ’50s, and those who recognized the religious malpractice of the Silent Generation’s leadership and sought to correct it.

    Francis Schaeffer wrote in one of his books that the ’60s generation asked the right questions, but the institutionalized church didn’t know how to answer them. Perhaps the C of E is in the same boat. There be icebergs, Mr. Archbishop.

  • Just found this Telegraph article on the decline of knowledge of Christianity among the clergy. Iceberg, dead ahead!

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I am one of those many ex-believers who still nurses a strong affection for the C of E, largely on account of the beauty of its ancient liturgy as well as the fact that it has, certainly until recently, been a force for good, as mentioned in the comments above (abolition of slavery, funding of education, etc).

    But I have a problem with the concept of God. What is “it” and does “it” consist of? I have never really read a argument from a Christian, or other religious person, for that matter, that really answers the question.

    I am not being rude or dismissive, I trust.

    BTW, I agree with David Carr’s original post. There is no doubt that in the absence of a strong and vigorous philosophy of liberty and a century of bloody wars and social dislocation, the need for a spiritual comfort is as strong as ever. Personally, I think we need to go back to the Greeks, and specifically Aristotle, for his understanding of how the virtuous life was also the happy one.

  • IMO, Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There represents the pinnacle of Christian apologetics. The Amazon customer reviews give you a general idea of the book, but they really don’t give it justice. Not light reading.

  • I believe that G.K. Chesterton once said “When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn’t believe
    in nothing. He believes in anything.” Aaron Armitage’s point is discussed at great length and philosophical sophistication by Professor Alvin Plantinga at the following URL:

    http://hisdefense.org/audio/ap_audio.html

    …which contains the audio presentation and lecture notes of his classic essay, “The Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism.”

  • rich picone

    Just read the piece in the Orlando Sentinel from several months ago reminding us to be angry. The author referenced your site saying there was a picture from 9/11 that would remind us to stay angry. How can I find that picture now?