The BBC series ‘Around the World in 80 Faiths’ has come to an end, and it seems like it was not a moment too soon.
Not that it was a bad series. Far from it. As a whirlwind tour of all varieties of mankind’s credulity, it was highly entertaining. The problem was that it was (perhaps necessarily, given the number of faiths) disappointingly superficial.
The presenter, Anglican vicar Peter Owen Jones, seemed to do his best to engage with each faith, though it was easy to see how he was predisposed to like some more than others. However, it was hard to shake the impression that this was little more than religious tourism of the most shallow kind.
Even when Owen Jones seemed to attempt to pursue a more profound question, it was usually done and dusted within a couple of minutes of airtime. Take, for example, his acknowledgement in the last programme of Martin Luther’s vile anti-semitism – a model that the Nazis referenced and on which they built. Owen Jones made a show of being guilt-ridden by this dark and shameful part of his own faith, because he was, that evening, to share a meal with Jews. When he brought up the subject over dinner, his Jewish host gave a generous response – that acknowledging the problem was the first step to solving it. This was, perhaps, more indicative of traditional Jewish hospitality than a highly developed philosophy. Owen Jones’ response was to treat the camera to one of his trademark gormless smiles and a statement to the effect that ‘that’s alright then’.
This was typical both of the programme’s superficiality and Owen Jones’ tendency to be easy on both himself and spirituality in general. He never really asked tough questions or delved with any seriousness into the causes or motivations of the faiths he briefly visited.
As the series progressed, he seemed in more and more of a rush. Perhaps his year-long odyssey was exhausting him, but by the last episode he seemed to be doing little more than name-checking faiths, with little attempt to explain their significance. His coverage of the Sami people in Finland, for example, amounted to little more than sitting in a tent with a shaman, grunting a little and banging a drum. He seemed unaware that joiks, the Sami’s unique musical form, is far more complex and rich than the simple chanting in which he momentarily indulged himself. Ray Mears covered this fascinating culture in far greater depth and with much more empathy, and did so as just part of a single programme.
The last programme was also marred by a naked display of prejudice. Predictably, the target of this bias was atheism.
In a series about faith, presented by a priest, I wasn’t expecting to see much coverage of atheism – let alone to see it presented as one of the 80 ‘faiths’. The only mention I’d seen so far (I missed one episode) was a rather sneering reference in the first programme which made the mistake of assuming that atheism is inherently reductionist and hostile to a sense of wonder. It is, of course, quite the reverse: but shedding the blinkers and restriction of religious dogma, it gies one the freedom to enjoy the full splendour, complexity and mystery of the universe.
Atheism, of course, is not a faith in that in does not require the suspension of rationality to believe in something for which there is no evidence. So counting it as one of the 80 faiths was, at best, a misrepresentation – one is tempted to use the word ‘lie’, and I’m not sure that I shouldn’t. Worse, Owen Jones decided to represent atheism by conflating it with communism, or more specifically, Stalinism.
This is a cheap trick, not uncommon among believers. Yes, Stalin both espoused and enforced atheism. But that does not make his actions or beliefs atheist. They were Stalinist. Stalinism was a totalitarian regime that, to aid its own survival, had to stand in conflict with other totalitarian regimes – notably, religion. Stalin’s repression of religion was ideological – and that ideology was communism, not atheism.
To use the excesses or characteristics of Stalinism to describe atheism – to equate the two – is not just logically and intellectually absurd, it is deeply dishonest. One might just as easily characterise and represent Christianity by the burning of witches.
Atheism is a philosphical (not religious) viewpoint – it is not a ideology. (And it should be noted that the richness of humanism, its history and philosophy, received only the curtest of passing mentions.) The tawdry trick employed by Owen Jones was the most obvious example of his prejudices coming to the fore. Of course, he wasn’t always called to the cloth: he is, in that respect, a convert. And it is typical of converts to turn their hate on what they may perceive as their own former inadequacies and on what they fear most.
Owen Jones also raved about the resurgence of spirituality in Russia (though not necessarily the old established faiths) without ever really questioning why this should be so. As presented, the implication was simply that, once the enforcement of atheism was lifted, people naturally return to religion. His interview with the token atheist went a very small way to suggesting an alternative – but not far enough.
Religion feeds on fear and uncertainty, and there has been plenty of both in post-communist Russia. People crave the stability of ceremony and community, and churches are happy to provide both. Hence people turn to the church – whatever church – not because the religion is offering something that is right or profound, but simply for the protection and comfort it provides. In this environment, an invisible pink unicorn or Flying Spaghetti Monster will function as well as Christ or Mohammed.
It would have been interesting if Owen Jones had thought to question the political and sociological forces at work. But his brief was very narrow and, being a believer, he is deeply biased towards believing that the embrace of supernatural ideas and submission to religious dogma are natural and right and trump everything else. This unwillingness to look further is a characteristic of the fundamental problem religion has with truth.
This series would have been so much more interesting, so much more valuable and profound, if Owen Jones had made his voyage alongside a humanist, or scientist, or psychologist. Then we could perhaps have had some answers to the key question, ‘why?’. But I don’t think Owen Jones would have had either the courage or honesty to do this.